The Winter Hummingbird

The hummingbird’s arrival is etched in my mind as a moment when senses, surprise, and the joy of being alive all merged in one small bird. I had left our hummingbird feeder up long after the last of our ruby-throated summer friends flew south. I’d heard that it might attract a late migrant or two, but in truth, I hadn’t taken the feeder down because I couldn’t yet contemplate the long winter without hummingbird energy to lift my spirits.

Then, at the very end of October, there she was, dipping her slender beak again and again into the feeder. I was certain the bird would just replenish her reserves and fly on. Still, delighted by her presence, I put fresh sugar water in the feeder in case she chose to stay a little longer.

Five years before, my husband and I had taken our first step as hummingbird enthusiasts by hanging a feeder outside the big windows of our home yoga studio in rural Virginia. Within days, our morning practice was punctuated by the antics of a hovering troupe of ruby-throated hummingbirds battling over the right to sip nectar from the new feeder.

I opened my eyes in Cobra pose one morning to find a hummingbird staring in the window at me. Hanging in the air a few feet in front of my face, wings a blur of movement, the bird was clearly curious. When I stayed in bed a few days later, flattened by a migraine, a hummer came to the bedroom window and hovered there, as if trying to assess why I wasn’t down in the yoga studio like I usually was at that hour.

The combination of the hummingbirds’ inquisitive nature and the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t quality of their darting movements made them natural ambassadors for present-moment awareness. It’s as if they embodied the message “Pay attention!” just by being their lovely, mercurial selves.

As summer turned to fall, territorial battles intensified. The birds were trying to put on weight for the coming migration and it seemed that everywhere I looked, hummers chased each other like electrons circling the house, transforming it―and us―with their alchemical magic. The birds grew noticeably in girth until they resembled tiny airborne tankers.

And then, early in the second week of October, the hummers disappeared. One day they were there, and the next, the feeder was abandoned. It amazed me how bereft I felt. That creatures weighing barely more than a penny could contain such life force was a mystery, but in the wake of their migration, the house seemed less alive, the gardens less vital. The yoga studio felt lonely and still.

Fast forward five years to our late October visitor, who amazed us by showing up at the feeder day after day for weeks. The weather grew colder, and we faced a dilemma. The hummingbird showed no signs of moving on, and we had plans to spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws in Pennsylvania. But how could we leave if the feeder might freeze and strand this little bird with no food in the middle of a cold snap? My husband devised a way to hang a utility light below the feeder, attaching an aluminum pie plate to harness the heat from the lightbulb and keep the sugar water above freezing. We headed out with our fingers crossed.

When we returned from our Thanksgiving sojourn, the bird was fine. By then, I’d identified her as a female rufous hummingbird, a species that summers from California to Alaska and normally spends the winters in Mexico. For reasons no one understands, some number of these birds end up flying east instead of south. They survive by going into a state called torpor when it gets cold, lowering their heart rate and metabolism. As long as they have ample food during the day, torpor allows them to make it through nights when the thermometer dips far below freezing.

Even with this knowledge, I felt anxious each morning until we caught sight of our winter hummingbird. Unlike the ruby-throats who were openly curious about us and our daily doings, this bird was wary and flew off whenever she caught sight of us. She depended on our sugar water, but preferred her own company.

Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day. The hummingbird survived a 10-inch snowfall and several nights when temperatures plummeted into the mid-teens. She was so elusive, it felt like I was having a relationship with a leprechaun or Tinkerbell, only this was a flesh and blood bird, smaller than my thumb, who somehow managed to cross the Rockies and find its way to our feeder.

She is still with us in mid-March, that tiny bird who taught me that strength can be concentrated in a very small package. She continues to stop me in my tracks, bringing me back from inner distraction to be very present with her beating wings and the drop of nectar that hangs for a moment on the tip of her beak until she sucks it in. Four months after she arrived, seeing her at the feeder still feels like a miracle to me, transforming an ordinary winter morning into an extraordinary one.

She has made every single day of the winter special simply by buzzing from shrub to feeder and back in a blur that makes me question my senses every time. Did I really see her? Are we really feeding a hummingbird in the middle of winter? The answers―yes, and yes―leave me filled with reverence and wonder. Author Sharon Salzberg notes that “to pay attention is to love.” Paying attention to our winter hummingbird, I find myself in love not only with the bird, but with my life.

Danna Faulds, poet and dedicated practitioner of Kripalu Yoga, is the author of four popular books of yoga poetry: Go In and In; One Soul; Prayers to the Infinite; and From Root to Bloom.

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