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Save the hummingbirds

Skip the slogans and do something good

Amid coronavirus fears, consider Christ’s words: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

And consider the hummingbird. Learning from my wife, Susan, last September I filled two hummingbird feeders with two cups of tepid water, stirred in half a cup of sugar, and hung them outside. We live in a tall house on the side of a hill, which bragging Texans call Edwards Mountain, so our two-feeder restaurant is just above the treetops.

Austin is between the 97th and 98th meridians, where the ranges of ruby-throated hummers and their black-chinned brethren overlap, so we host both kinds. Each weighs one-ninth of an ounce, about what a 9½-week-old unborn child weighs. Two centuries ago John Hector St. John called the hummingbird “a miniature work of our Great Parent, who seems to have formed it the smallest, and at the same time the most beautiful of the winged species.” 

But hummers have not only my respect but my pity: Their hyper-fast metabolism pushes them to eat each day at least twice their own body weight in tiny bugs, nectar, and sugar water. That’s like a human eating all the food on every shelf of a big refrigerator. 

Hummers have not only my respect but my pity.

They are also fearful, taking a drink, flying away, coming back for another. Desperate as they are to eat frequently, given their metabolism, they are also violent, ready to attack bigger birds that infringe on their space, and other hummers as well. 

My eagerness to become a hummingbird restaurateur has a backstory. 

One of our WORLD slogans is “sensational facts, understated prose.” The New York Times, which began as a Christian newspaper, had a similar policy a century ago, but no more. Last year the Times announced, on page 1, “An Ecological Crisis.” It seems the sky is falling and “Birds Are Vanishing From North America.”

Not exactly. More than 10 billion birds still take wing in the United States and Canada. But the Times summarized an article in Science that claimed the number of birds has decreased by 29 percent over the past half century. 

What to do? Britain’s The Guardian last fall headlined one article, “Garden feeders are supporting rising numbers of urban birds.” The lead sentence: “More than half of British homeowners feed birds, maintaining 133 species.” 

The story showed how across the Atlantic goldfinches, wood pigeons, and others are multiplying: Brits in their backyards supply enough food to support 196 million birds. Kate Plummer of the British Trust for Ornithology said, “If we provide the best food we can and keep the feeders clean, then hopefully we are doing something good overall.”

That’s the way we should think: Instead of scaring children and pushing students to go to massive demonstrations, let’s talk about “doing something good” in our own neighborhoods and backyards. That’s better than repeating mass-manufactured slogans. 

When our hummingbirds last November headed south to winter in Mexico, I missed them—and read more about them.

They have not only beauty but brains. Studies show hummingbirds can remember flowers they’ve visited, and even which humans can be trusted to refill empty hummingbird feeders. They fly forward or backward and beat their wings between 70 and 200 times per second. 

The male hummer is Mr. Excitement, diving past females at speeds that can reach 60 miles per hour—but once impressed and impregnated, the female works for five days to build a 2-inch-diameter nest of buds, plant down, and lichens, about an inch deep. She then lays in it jellybean-sized white eggs and sits on them for two weeks while the father looks to mate with any other females who wander into his territory. 

Not role models for us, but creatures we can protect, a few at a time—and our hummers returned to the Olasky diner last month! As America reopens and some of us head to restaurants with tables more than 6 feet apart, it’s good to remember that, as Jesus taught, God protects us.