Hummingbirds Don’t (Really) Hum

I thought I’d like some songbirds to call my own. Now that I have a patio, I thought I could hang their cage outside, under the shady eave, and they could sing for me.

I thought I’d get a beautiful birdcage, one of the many handmade, hand-painted cages available here at San Miguel de Allende’s famous artisanal mercado:

And I’d buy little songbirds at the Tuesday tianguis (large, open-air market), if and when such birds were available for sale:

But then…

I thought better of it. The old sense of empathy kicked in. Caged? Owned? Who wants that? Certainly not I. So why should I inflict such torture on any other creature?

Instead, then, I decided to buy a feeder to hang out on my patio – a lovely, blue glass hummingbird feeder – at a local specialty shop called Camino Silvestre (literally: “wild journey”):

“I live in a penthouse apartment,” I jokingly told the shopkeeper. “Will the hummingbirds fly that high?”

“They will go wherever the nectar is,” she assured me.

The nectar she referred to (for those who are new at feeding hummingbirds) is a homemade sugar solution (4:1 ratio – water to sugar). And, sure enough, she was right. No sooner had I hung the nectar-filled feeder on my “penthouse” patio than I had thirsty little visitors, darting and whizzing around (and hard to photograph, I soon found, at close range):

I sit quietly on my small patio, stock-still, pretending I’m just another potted geranium, and I observe my winged little visitors zooming in and out. The vocal sounds they make, I’ve discovered, are not hums – they’re more like chirps, chatters, squeaks and squeals (especially when they’re fighting over access to the feeder). The humming sound they’re named for is not, it turns out, an expression of their feelings, it’s a result of their aerodynamics: It’s the sound their wings make, flapping at an eye-blurring rate of between sixty and two hundred times per second.

They’re small, no bigger than my thumb (the smallest birds of all, I learn from research, and the only birds capable of flying backwards), with long, thin, red, needlelike beaks. The ones that visit me come in all sorts of shiny colors – greenish, bluish, reddish, grayish-brown – some with white breasts and some not. Sometimes, to my great relief, they perch on the feeder and take a deep breath before zipping away to God-knows-where:

Every story, fiction as well as non-, requires an antagonist to create and maintain tension. So here we go:

Who should arrive on this idyllic patio scene the other day but El Gato (my name for him — or is it her?), a scruffy, smelly, old, homeless cat who hangs out at this apartamento complex (where no dogs are allowed); who answers to no one and is fed (judging from the empty small bowls and saucers outside many apartment doors here) by just about everyone.

El Gato has decided – and I really can’t blame him for this – that my sweet little patio is the place to be. He has found a back way, over the brick wall, into it. When I’m out there, he cuddles beside me and purrs loudly. When I’m not there, he stretches out beside the potted plants and snoozes in peace and safety:

At first his obvious presence was off-putting to the hummingbirds. In less than a twinkling, they took one look at this potential predator and nixed the free-nectar idea. (How quickly their tiny little brains work, I marveled.) They darted off. My heart sank.

But then the birds and I seemed to make the same discovery at the same time: El Gato is either so well fed by the well meaning residents here that he’s not interested in chasing down and eating hummingbirds for lunch, or he’s so old that he’s deaf to the hummingbirds’ squeaky-chirpy sounds — or both. He pays no attention to them – doesn’t lift or turn his head, doesn’t even cock an ear — so they quickly learned to ignore him.

Now we’re all happy – the birds, the cat, and I too. None of us is owned by anyone. All of us are free to come and go as we wish. The lesson for me is it’s always good to question widely accepted assumptions. In this case, I’ve been reminded once again that ownership does not equal happiness. And I’ve also learned something new: hummingbirds not only don’t sing, they don’t even, really hum.