Tag Archives: animals

Flying Jewels

The last couple of months we’ve been party to some serious bird drama out in the yard. Specifically, the love and war between hummingbirds. Around here we’ve got the fiery Rufous , the petite Calliope, and the chunky black-chinned.

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Rufous Hummingbird. Public Domain

I could tell you how incredible these tiny fliers are — how their specialized metabolisms can convert sugar directly to muscle-energy without the rigmarole of first converting it to stored fat, or how they are the only bird who can fly backwards forgoodnesssakes, and how their wings can beat up to 200 times per second, supported by their monster pecs which account for 30 percent of their body weight, and would make even Arnold weep in jealousy and delight…

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Black-chinned hummingbird. Photo credit: Mdf

But really, all I want to say is that I have grown custom to their thrums and hums. That if I stand on a ladder next to their feeder, I can watch them lap the red sugar-water with only mild concern they may actually become tangled in my hair. And that they remind me growing up catching glimpses of ruby-throats in the big picture window at our cabin in the northwoods; and of the time, when surveying a wetland in Glacier,  I found three tiny eggs in an impossibly delicate little nest fastened to a fir bough, hanging over the water; or when one flew into the house and I patiently waited for it to calm, then held it in my hand, feeling the pulse of that bombastic little racing heart in my palm. These are all gifts.

Still, on the matter of hummingbirds, I doubt anyone could say it better than my writer friend Brian Doyle. Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read his excellent piece Joyas volardores. Think of it when next you hear the kinetic buzz and hum of one of these amazing little birds.

Calliope Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Kati Flemming

Joyas volardores

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas volardores, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.


Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.


Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.


The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest animal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.


Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.


So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel The Plover. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org

 

Casualities of the Road

Last week my mom and I drove from Kansas City to Glacier over a couple of days. The Midwest-Montana connection is a journey I have made more times than I can remember, but the last time Moms did it with me we (well, I should say I, because she found it morbid and perhaps a little unnerving) started a tradition.

Perhaps you have a road trip tradition. Maybe it involves playing I Spy, eating condiment sandwiches, looking for different states’ licence plates, or singing songs about washing your neck, like I used to do as a kid with my grandparents. Those are all great, but that’s not what we do.

Nope, we count animal casualties on the road. But in a non-creepy way. Yeah, I mean road kill, though I don’t like that term. Yes, it is depressing, but it does pass the time, and it does make you bear witness a little, and it does provide some vague ecological commentary about our country — heavy on the raccoon the first day, none by the last day, and so on.

road casualities

The drive is nearly 1500 miles and 22 hours, not including bi-hourly pee breaks. During our three-day journey we encountered at least 181 fallen fuzzies. The mile/kill ratio was by far the highest the first day between Kansas City and Mitchell, SD.

181 animals. It’s a number worth thinking about.

111 unidentifiable small furry creatures
23 raccoon (17 on the first day, none on the last)
15 deer
11 skunks
8 birds
4 coyote
4 squirrels
2 bunnies
2 pronghorn
1 porcupine
1 dog
and 2 black shoes

 

A Snail’s Spring

We don’t get many signs of early spring here in the land of lodgepole, so, inspired by Vyacheslav Mishchenko’s magical photographs, I’ve been drawing my own spring — through the eyes of curious gastropods, for whom I am developing a great affection.

snail fern snail mushroom snail acorn snail flower

If you’re feeling the snail love, but can’t find any of your own to observe, I also recommend checking out Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, which I reviewed in Orion some time ago.

The Heart of a Tree Lobster

If you want to see another stellar, gorgeous and entrancing junction of art, science, conservation, and history, please, please take a minute to watch this breathtaking trailer for the forthcoming animated film Sticky, about the critically endangered Lord Howe stick insect, a gentle giant nicknamed the tree lobster. It is remarkable and utterly haunting.

Watch the trailer here.

Then check out the Wired article about the film, and Bespoke Animation’s website, too.

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