Story – Hummingbirds and Orchids (2003)

A freshly built hummingbirds’ nest is the most exquisite thing in nature. The one I saw was either new built or refurbished; I know, because there was one egg in it the next day and two the day after that.

The size of half a butter-nut (with the husk still on) it was placed in the fork of a branch conveniently at eye-level. It’s impossible to stress how small and well camouflaged the nest is and, but for the fact that it nearly blinded me, I never would have seen it—not even staring right at it. Unfortunately I didn’t really, to be honest, examine the outside at all—I take it for granted that it was made out of lichen because I read that somewhere. Like the branch it sat in it was gray, slightly mottled and a little rougher than the bark of the tree.

But the interior was exquisite to a degree that mooted other considerations—besides of course the procurement of a pair of shears the next day to bring it back with me, as, no doubt, the possession of a hummingbird’s nest is a desire that needs no apology.   It was empty: It must be abandoned. Well, it was brand-new as the eggs that appeared on a daily basis proved and I left the island before they hatched.

There is a gray color unique to eighteenth century Venetian brocades. The floss is not so perfectly spun as Chinese silk and so it has a slight grain that catches and breaks up the light. It is the palest silver and almost metallic but soft, very soft. The contrast between the coarse outside and the glossy inside of the nest was striking. The extraordinary perfection of the satin interior provoked the question that most pleases a weaver—“How in the world did you ever do that?” How indeed.

So I’ll tell you what it seemed to me. Since weaving is traditionally an occupation of the distaff side—I’m sure it is so in birds and that it was the female who wove the nest’s satin duvet out of spider webs. I can’t imagine another fiber. Since spiders weave with alternate smooth and sticky threads a hummingbird with any skill at all will quickly size-up this opportunity to the advantage of her own weaving. Each infinitely fine thread was laid down parallel to the next like a float weave, producing a shimmering silver satin. As tiny as it was—enough to cover the bowl of a cream soup spoon—the nest seemed to account for a prodigious amount of intelligent labor as well as a span of time. The equivalent would be a human being genetically hard-wired to produce a Gobelin tapestry.

The next day there was an egg. It was tiny. Now, was it as small as a bean, a pea, or a pinkie’s fingernail—I honestly can’t say, but it was small. I was disappointed to realize that I could no longer take the nest. It truly hadn’t occurred to me that it might, in fact, be occupied.

The next day there was a second egg.

The third day I finally saw her.

When I was a little boy on the dunes at Crane Beach in Ipswich Mass. I once came upon a flicker on a rotted tree-stump. It didn’t fly away. The flicker is one of the most vividly colored of the woodpeckers and a brilliant thing to see close-up—and one rarely does. I was standing right over this beautiful large bird and it was not flying away so of course it must be hurt—I suppose I wanted it to be hurt to give me an excuse for picking it up. I put both hands around it, gently, and gently pulled upwards. It didn’t budge. It’s afraid, I thought. I’ll tug a little harder. I realized that if I pull any harder I’ll tear it to shreds before it lets go, when I had another thought at the same time and so dropped it. It was on its nest, of course, in a rotted log that in another week would be so completely covered in poison ivy that it would be invisible and so the bird had no instinct to fly away. The better policy was to freeze.

The hummingbird’s better policy was to freeze. I got this close and she didn’t budge. It was the drab topped female but even a male only sparkles from a certain angle and not when looking down at it. It was thrilling to witness one of the great camouflage stunts in nature. This bird is endlessly fascinating.

As small as she was, the nest was smaller and she was nearly folded in two and deeply immured. I knew that I’d tear her body from her legs before she’d let go if I tried to pull her out. Just the tip of her rump protruded and her tail feathers were folded into a point. Her head and long beak made a perfect mirror for her tail. One could not tell head from tail.

The mirror effect was stunning. She stood a perfect 50-50 chance of a predator attacking the wrong end, if she were ever spotted. Stillness was her trump.

I left the island the next day, sad to leave her and the orchids. The house was called Punto Aloe because of all the huge sulphur sapped Aloe Vera that populated the back yard. The Flamboyan trees were in “scarlet bloom’ their trunks and branches festooned with large orchid plants.

Each plant had at least one long efflorescence covered in buds all ready to burst into bloom the day after I left. For some reason I conceived of them as vanilla orchids but in truth they could have been anything. Certain vanilla flowers don’t completely open, so they must have some special pollinator equipped for the job.

It only today, twenty years later, occurred to me that the timing couldn’t be a coincidence: the ready to hatch eggs—the ready to bloom orchids.

How brilliant, and territorial, my hummingbird. Little to me; but in the rough and tumble world of hummingbirds she was a veritable Donald Trump—the best house on the island—and all the orchids you can eat.



Rene Ricard

May 18, 2003

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