Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Death of a Hummingbird

My son and I found a deceased hummingbird in our yard yesterday. I almost didn't see it, at first. Without my glasses, the bright green feathers and grayish wings fooled me into thinking it was a dead fig beetle in the leaf litter. When I bent down and saw this tiny bird, I was at first overjoyed! I picked it up delicately, cradling it in my hands hoping to see or feel a little bit of breath or movement.

When I realized the bird was not going revive I started to examine it like tiny treasure. The opportunity to just hold a hummingbird was a rarity, but to be able to actually do a bit of manipulation, knowing I'd be causing no harm excited the nerdy nature kid and adult in me.

I passed my fingertips over the smooth head feathers and into the "ruff" that were both that glistening ruby color when in direct sunlight. This identified this specimen as a male Anna's hummingbird, common in our area. We hear them whizzing past our porch every day, on the way to our neighbor's feeder, sometimes landing on the power/telephone lines, usually unseen chirping from the bushes and trees in our yards.

I touched the tip of the amazingly sharp beak, sealed shut in death sleep, unable to view the amazing tongue that makes hummingbird feeding such a unique process. The little eyes were closed into slits. When I flipped his little body over, I saw that his belly was completely bare. The gray/pink skin was still soft, and yielded to slight pressure; perhaps he had not been dead quite that long despite his legs and claws resembling dried noodles. I could trace his breastbone with my finger, and stroke his wing feathers that were so soft that felt like air brushing. He felt like nothing in our hands.

A quick internet check revealed that some hummingbirds, even males, will lose abdominal feathers to form brood patches - featherless spots with increased vascularity to facilitate snuggling up against eggs or chicks. Perhaps a nest high up in our tree was now missing its paternal figure, or, free from a paternal rival? Hummingbirds, the internet said, are also notoriously territorial, using those beaks as weapons. I saw no puncture wounds indicating predation or intra-species battle, no missing body parts or feathers (save for the belly), so as to the cause of death I can only speculate.

We showed his little body to our dog, who was curious as to what we were doing cooing and fawning over something that was not him. I held on to the bird snugly, partly expecting the dog to try to grab the corpse and run off with it like a toy. To my surprise, the dog gave it a thorough sniff-over, then just looked up at me, without the slightest aggressive action. Was this because the animal was already dead? Was this because he knew to not grab something from me? Was this because he is a kind and gentle soul? Logic dictates the two former answers, and my heart wants to believe the latter third.

I didn't feel the urge to do any sort of messy dissection, or taxidermic preservation (nor did I know how), and knowing there are better pictures of live birds on the internet dissuaded me from photographing our specimen. In fact the only documentation I really felt would be valuable was about the experience itself. Eli had lost interest after getting a chance to hold it once, surprised at how lightweight it was, and the amazing colors. He suggested we bury rather than the "trashcan" option, so I chose a spot underneath one of our vintage (and rather in need of some nutrients) rose bushes. Now the bird's body has a second chance to add to the beauty of nature.

I know there's a yoga lesson or a hundred in here, but I'll leave it for each person to contemplate. I will just savor the experience for what it was: teachable moment, a learning moment, a living moment, a dying one as well.

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