We didn’t have a hummingbird feeder because I was scared that I would poison the birds. You have to be vigilant, sites for would-be hummingbirders warn, and clean the feeder thoroughly every other day, particularly in hot weather. Otherwise the feeder could grow mold and fungus and kill the bird you were hoping to nurture. Overwhelmed, I always put it off for another year.
According to the National Park Service, the average North American hummingbird in typical flight flaps its wings “around 53 beats per second.” The “fastest recorded rate” of a hummingbird’s wings is “about 80 beats per second,” an unimaginable blur. They flit and dart, but this is not a sign of distractibility. Far from it, hummingbirds remember every feeder and flower and the duration that it takes them to refill. One might say that for all their flutter and excitement, their deep focus lies beneath. They fly so fast in order to stay still, and in so doing, they see, smell, sense more than their obtuse human neighbors.
Since my daughter was a toddler, she has flapped her arms and hands when she becomes excited. It is the sign of her wonder, her curiosity, her delight, her intense engagement. This flapping is delightfully contagious. A close friend confided in me that her children hop, skip, and flap with my daughter more than they do on their own. When she is alone in our yard, she also runs, talking to herself, singing to herself. She has done it so often in our front yard that she had worn a path there the size of a motorcycle wheel. I’ve laid stepping stones in that desire line, to quicken her step and smooth the journey.
Because of their memory and focus, hummingbirds are highly territorial birds. They don’t like changes to their space; they dislike intruders. Dramatic changes in environment and routine are not welcome when you sense all of its details and rely on the gradual refilling of nectar to sustain you.
My daughter likes routine, craves familiarity. Before she could reliably speak, she could tell time through custom. Her preschool teacher told me that the one day a week when their snacktime varied, Sophia would stand and look at her, even walk to the snack table, as though to say, “this is what we do now. Why are you changing it?”
In the second grade play, staged in the second week of March 2020, Sophia was elated that she was cast as a firefly. She got to wave her hands in the air with lights on her fingers. She disliked that she had to stand on the bleachers next to a girl she didn’t like. When the girl would step on the tape that marked my daughter’s spot, it would fill Sophia with rage that she could not control or fully express. Her compassionate teacher sent an older child to talk to my daughter about having to work with other people, even people we don’t like, even when those people intrude on our space. Sophia appreciated the older child’s company but fundamentally disputed her point. “I hate Beth,” she told me flatly over dinner.
YouTube is filled with videos of hummingbirds battling others who enter their space, thrusting sharp beaks like tiny rapiers at interlopers.
The whole day of the school play, I watched with trepidation, knowing that Sophia knew every word and movement, not just her own, but every role in the play, and fearing that her visceral reaction to the other child would overwhelm her. She made it through. She was spectacular, the flashing lights on her fluttering hands in the dark catching everyone’s eye. When the principal came out at the end of the show to thank the parents for coming, she misquoted some of the lyrics of the show, and Sophia called out to correct her.
Two days later school closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first few days of at-home time, it seemed as though it would be a party. Movies with popcorn in the morning. Late nights with Mom and Dad. But soon enough, Sophia realized that her environment, her routine, was utterly deranged. I hovered around her anxiously. We were together all the time, but we didn’t know how to be together all of the time. We started flying at one another with sharp beaks.
Otherworldly, hummingbirds live life at another frequency and tempo. What looks magical from a human perspective is life at normal speed from theirs. When I see a hummingbird enter my yard, I hold my breath. It hovers and darts and feeds. It disappears as quickly as it arrives.
My daughter was born two weeks early. In her early years, she kept me off-kilter. She operates at a higher speed than I do, and I often feel belated and breathless trying to keep up. When she was in preschool, she darted between some parked cars and headed for the open road. I caught her and earnestly enjoined: “Sophia, we do not run in parking lots.” Toddler Sophia solemnly looked at me and corrected, “I not run—I walk!”
Hummingbirds are named after the hum made by their wings rather than their vocal cords. When Sophia is concentrating, she hums to herself, off-tune. My husband can’t listen to this atonal drone; he nudges, he reminds her that there are other people in earshot. Hummingbirds are largely solitary within their small territories.
Three weeks before Sophia’s school shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, a psychologist diagnosed her with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. During the evaluation session, Sophia answered most of her questions while hanging upside down off of her couch. Occasionally, she attempted to burst into the hallway and to dash to find me in the waiting room. Even now that she can express herself in full (elaborate and erudite!) sentences, she is still running, not walking.
When school stopped, Sophia had no map of her world, and neither did I. With no mandated bedtime, she stayed up until all hours, sobbing from fatigue and frustration. With school on the iPad, she longed for the physical contact and affective comfort her teachers could no longer give her. The auditory and visual stimuli of the Google Meet, all of those faces and voices all at once, was too much. While she threw tantrums and hid in the bathtub, writing heartbreaking notes of apology to her father and me for not being like other kids, I felt helpless and despairing. How could I help her? She needed to finish the school year. She needed to sleep. I needed not to hover over her hour by hour. I too needed a bathtub where I could hide.
Paradoxically, the best way to observe the lightning-fast hummingbird is to slow down your perceptions. Photographers do this technologically by employing slow-motion videography. In slow motion, you can see that what looks like a blur of wings is actually an elegantly choreographed swoop in a figure eight. The quick thrust of the beak towards the flower or feeder allows the long tongue to swoop out like a straw and sip from the blossom. Hummingbirds are exquisitely appointed for their purpose.
This summer I took the leap and ordered a hummingbird feeder, a glass bulb with red metal flowers, spouts for feeding, at its base. Sophia and I had no idea what we would do every day, but I knew we’d be around to linger and watch, to spot our sylvan neighbors if they graced the yard. Surely in these wide empty days, even I could remember to replenish the nectar, could take the time to scrub and rinse and rehang methodically. What other urgent tasks were punctuating my days? Our time felt simultaneously more incremental, more diurnal, and more seasonal. We felt the hot weather swell, sweat pricking the base of our necks. We awaited our wished-for hummingbird.
Sophia saw it long before I did. She spent hours each day on her bike, looping desultory circles on our cement patio. Days past, and I lamented that there was no sign of a hummingbird. Sophia swore that she had seen one, swooping to the feeder and then back to the canopy of trees. I knew her imagination was vivid; I suspected she was prone to suggestion, her mind’s eye supplying the visitor she knew her mother craved.
I worried that I had constructed the feeder wrong or hung it in a lousy location. I didn’t know what hummingbirds needed or liked for that matter. When I put the feeder on the shepherd’s hook, I spilled the sugary solution all over myself. Learning to live with another species, like learning to live with another person, is a tricky, clumsy, often sticky process.
The first time I saw a hummingbird come out from the trees to sample our sugar water, I gasped. It felt as though a piece of the underbrush had coalesced into a bird. Its ruby-red throat sparkled. One Spanish name for hummingbirds is “Joyas Voladoras,” “Flying Jewels.”
No longer having to pretend that screen school was real school freed us. Sophia and I read The Phantom Tollbooth in a hammock under a canopy of trees. She dressed in a toga made from a bed sheet while narrating to her psychologist (thanks be for tele-therapy!) the stories of the Greek gods. Her therapist reminded me, while one day I bemoaned how rude Sophia could be, “you have to let go of your need for her to people please. People will love her the way she is.”
Hummingbirds are not people pleasers. They dart out of our view. They are frequently called “feisty,” which Merriam-Webster tells me is “chiefly Southern US” and means “full of nervous energy: fidgety,” “touchy, quarrelsome,” “exuberantly frisky,” “having or showing a lively aggressiveness: SPUNKY.” The example they give is “the movie’s feisty heroine.” (Somehow feistiness is always female.)
Many girls of Sophia’s age are missed by the classic autism paradigm. Sophia has an expressive face (sometimes too expressive!); she has no interest in trains; she is charismatic and garrulous rather than withdrawn. She is deeply empathetic, a misprision that many have about people on the autism spectrum, not just women. She can be overly literal. Her verbal precocity often leads adults to expect an equal social or emotional maturity. Her whole life, she has flown quickly from joy to rage with few stops in between. Girls pay a particularly steep cost for struggles with emotional regulation.
All of Sophia’s senses are acute. She can’t stand leggings because they are too tight. Once I saw her running back and forth on the patio and then lying down on her stomach, her knees tight against her chest like a child’s pose in yoga. I asked her what she was doing, and she replied, “when my brain is on fire, I lie down!”
When the school counselor asked me to have Sophia evaluated, I felt exhausted. It seemed like her whole life, I was trying to juggle: my work, her care, her needs that I couldn’t understand. The demands of daily life, I thought, would not let me be the mother I had always hoped to be. Perhaps, though I observed her preciousness and her magic, Sophia would nonetheless always elude me, as I wondered how to live life at her speed and frequency.
The summer of coronavirus, we slowed down. Let me be clear: Sophia was still always in motion. Flapping her hands, singing songs and telling stories to herself, zipping over the hills at the bike park while listening to audiobooks of The Babysitter’s Club, which to me at a distance sounded like a low, steady hum. But rather than juggle, for once, I dwelled. I had no work I had to do; I had no mark I needed her to meet. I watched; I listened; I shared. Her teddy bears went to animal school with a curriculum invented by Sophia and acted out by yours truly. The ambit of our world was defined by our backyard.
A month into the summer, I could spot the hummingbird when it wasn’t on the feeder. It had a branch, a slender vine, really, where it hovered until it could be sure there were no threats around, and then it would descend and dazzle. Its feathers frilled blue, green, red at the throat. Each time I saw it up above, I could get closer and closer to where it hovered at the feeder. I took innumerable videos of the same bird sipping its sugar water, sustained by my care.
The cleaning of the feeder, which had so intimidated me in the past, I now undertook with a baby bottle brush I hadn’t used since I went back to work after Sophia was born, pumping breastmilk while watching her sob—perhaps at the mechanical sound, perhaps at the absence of sustenance while in the presence of my smell. I rasped its delicate bristles over each opening that would be kissed by a beak.
I found the expensive camera that we bought when Sophia was born, thinking that we would take innumerable pictures of our treasured offspring. We have innumerable pictures of our newborn sleeping. I stopped using the camera when she learned to walk. It was too heavily to tote, and she was too quick, even for my automatic focus. (The sport shot setting, one friend recommended.) I brought it out to the yard and held my breath while I turned the manual focus for the first time in years, excited to see more closely the bird I had shared my days with. When I transferred the shot to the computer, the bird’s arresting attitude thrilled me in the enlarged image. My brave and bold companion, here seen more intimately than ever before.
Before the pandemic, Sophia, who loves to perform, was in a performance of a local youth troupe at a community theater. When the voice class took center stage to sing “A Million Dreams,” Sophia closed her eyes and threw back her head, open-throated, open-hearted. Tears sprang to my eyes. My heart hummed.
In South Carolina, the hummingbirds arrive in March, and they leave in October. The spring and summer felt so long that I deceived myself into thinking that the hummingbirds would stay. I’d hung a second feeder outside my office window, so I could see the hummingbird through the glass even when I was inside. Sophia and I went for walks by the river and threw stones, watching the arcs ripple out. We made up stories about the carefully interwoven lives of imaginary characters. One night, we had a “sleepover,” and I listened to her breath and held her hot back while we snuggled in her bed.
Her school decided to reopen in the fall, and my husband and I panicked at all the unknowns. We knew how privileged we were, how fortunate to have a choice. Many parents of neurodiverse children who have the same sensory aversions and cognitive barriers to remote school as does Sophia had no recourse when their local public school stayed remote. The first ten days of the schoolyear, we kept her home. The rote handouts made her sob with frustration. She mistrusted an unfamiliar teacher. The video chats with classmates reminded her of the social time she was missing out on. My constant companion in the summer, my laughter-filled darling, snarled and sobbed. I struggled to organize her assignments in manageable lists, to supply the executive function (“my boring brain,” as I joked to her) to make remote school doable. She saw through my attempts to turn a feeder into a flower.
The day that I saw her shoulders sag and her energy wilt, not the spark of anger—not “lively aggressiveness” but depressed defeat—I knew that I had to let her go back to school in spite of my trepidation. My chaotic child who cherishes order—I knew she would love physical distancing, hand washing, routinized recess. We found her beautiful, patterned masks that felt smooth against her skin. When I pick her up from school, I see her dash to the pick-up line, her hands a-flutter, and I can feel my heart do the same.
Because hummingbirds are such a tiny bird, they can be harmed by the insecticides and pesticides in the environment. Not only can improperly cleaned feeders lead to fungal infections or toxic mold, but bees and wasps drawn to the feeder by the sugar can also sting and kill them. Their vibrancy does not diminish their fragility, but perhaps their fragility enhances their vibrancy. They wouldn’t be feisty, after all, if it weren’t such a wonder for a tiny bird to have such a huge life force.
Motherhood—truly, any kind of care—means that you have to accept vulnerability. In the summer, I learned to share my own, expressing to Sophia how often noise, hunger, or mounting frustration make me erupt, sharing my own imperfect and provisional strategies for balance, resilience, survival. (Sometimes when she and I clashed, I’d flee into the backyard and search for a glimpse of a hummingbird.) But it’s harder—maybe impossible—to accept your child’s vulnerability.
The Monday that my daughter started back to in-person school, my husband poured the nectar I had carefully boiled on the stove top to put out later in the newly washed feeders down the sink. He thought the pot was filled with water, maybe something I had cooked with. Hummingbirds are crepuscular feeders, and with night falling and no sugar in the pantry, I fell into overwhelm, crying and blaming: “now my hummingbird won’t come back until next year!” I knew I was acting childish, but I couldn’t stop the cascade of sobs, the ugly fears spilling out of my mouth.
I missed already the sheer comfort, beauty, and wonder of the creature that had shared my summer, that I had given the sweet dailiness of care. Sophia looked at me with wide eyes, not questioning my melodrama, and tears tumbled down her cheeks: “I want the hummingbird to come back, Mama!”
She didn’t know that I was sad about other movements I couldn’t control, fearful that in spite of my care, in spite of my rituals of cleaning, the environment that my cherished ones lived and moved in could bring them harm.
My hummingbird came back the next day and stayed until mid-fall, as birds do, before undertaking the migration that also defines its days. My daughter’s school is still open, in person, though they E-mail reports of more COVID cases each day. I do not know what the summer will bring. But I know I will hang a feeder.
Catherine Keyser is a Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Artificial Color: Modern Food and Racial Fictions (Oxford UP 2019) and Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture (Rutgers UP 2010). Her essays have appeared in Cabinet magazine, Transition Magazine, Public Books, and the New York Times Book Review.
featured photo by Catherine Keyser