BIRD BY DESERT-LIGHT

BY CHELSEA BIONDOLILLO

 

…It can’t store enough fuel to last the night

and hoist it from its well of dreams

to first light trembling on wet fuchsia,

nor break the hard promise life always keeps.

A lot of hummingbirds die in their sleep.

 

Diane Ackerman, Dark Night of the Hummingbird

 

 

Creeping home after midnight requires equal amounts of attention to detail and skill. After years of late nights, I know to take my shoes off before walking up to the door, so no heel sound will clatter on the steps. I secure my purse over my shoulder and tuck it under my arm to prevent it from jangling or bumping into door jambs. If I’ve been drinking, I take a couple of cleansing breaths to focus on the task at hand: getting the key into the lock with a minimum of fumbling. Stabbing blindly at the key plate is the sure sign of an amateur.

Tonight, however, I’m sober as a judge. My stealth is out of habit and courtesy rather than propriety: I don’t want to wake my parents. I’m every bit a guest in this house, and want to act it. Already I have figuratively slunk to their house in Phoenix after failing to beat the recession. Back in Texas, someone else is living in my house and someone else is doing the administrative tasks that I used to do, before my position was eliminated.

As I near the door, the motion sensor flips on the over-bright porch light. The glare throws cacti and agave shadows from the xeriscaping up the walls. At my own house, I would leave the light on for myself, and so I’m unprepared for the blinding flash. I hurry to the door and try to find the new house-key on my ring.

Behind me, I hear a whirring noise, a bumping, buzzing sound, as of a giant bumblebee. I look up at the bug-mottled light and catch a dark shape moving in the eaves next to the porch. A hummingbird has been startled from her nest on one of my mother’s leaded glass ornaments. In the bird’s panic, she has flown into the wall. Either from confusion or fear, she seems unable to turn herself around and fly off into the dark, instead she bumps into the wall over and over.

There is no way to turn off the light, except through stillness. I rush in the front door and round the corner into the kitchen where a window over the sink looks out onto the porch. This is where my mother watches the bird during the day. It’s the second year she’s nested here. She’s completely out of view now, and her tiny body against the eaves isn’t enough to send a sound through the walls. I can’t see if she’s still fluttering or if she’s fallen, and after a few minutes the light goes out. I’m worried that her fevered panic may have stopped her heart, but can’t go check without re-tripping the light.

The next morning the hummingbird is back on her nest, but after a few restless days, she dashes off for good. I stand on tiptoes trying to see into the thimble-sized cup of her cold nest, but it has been constructed just above eye level. Impatience gets the better of me, and rather than get a ladder, I probe the most careful finger I can muster over the downy edge. It’s empty. I’m sure it’s my fault, but I don’t tell my mother.

 

The morning after I was laid off in the late summer of 2008, I woke up early for the first time in years. I made coffee and added a generous splash of liquor to it. I stayed drunk for three days. Camaraderie in the unemployment line that year in Austin was abundant and diverse.

I don’t know what the right way to react to a layoff is. Some of my friends were on the job search the next day, while I took it as a sign to reassess. I used my severance to finance a year of community college classes and trips to see old friends all over the country. I didn’t want to go back to corporate life and had only vague notions that I would become a writer instead. Graduate school seemed the best idea, and I moved to my parents’ new house in Arizona while I assembled and sent off my applications.

The rejections started in February and came clear through April. Throughout much of that spring, I broke into sobs inconveniently: behind the wheel at red lights and any time I heard the words “future” or “career.” My spirit cracked; I got a job stocking grocery shelves. I wrote a dozen shorts that all started out with a pink slip, but that story wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Then one night I scared a hummingbird, I believed, nearly to death and remembered a poem. It was a small idea, but it was the first thing that had interested me in months. I decided to write a moving essay on the possible plight of the hummingbirds, an essay so grand and catalyzing that National Geographic and the Smithsonian magazine would get into a bidding war for the rights to print it, an essay that would launch a movement to save these small jewels not just from their own anatomy but from our golem of urbanization. It would also launch my enviable new naturalist career. I went to the library and I scoured the internet for clues. I read about lowered backyard bird counts and fragile populations. And then I found out about a banding operation just a few hours from Phoenix and wrote to the woman in charge to ask if I could visit. Two days later, Sheri wrote me back and said yes.

 

Just south of Tucson, in the high Sonoran desert, Sheri Williamson, one of the nation’s hummingbird experts, spends the summer banding birds in back of the information center for the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. I’m part of a group of nearly a dozen visitors here, among towering cottonwoods, scarlet penstemons, and a field of yellow grass sprouting the occasional spiked yucca, to watch her catch and band as many as she can before dusk. The bands in this case are tiny little rings stamped with ID numbers. Sheri uses jeweler’s pliers to close one around each bird’s leg. If the bird already has a band, her assistant records the number and the date and time of the sighting. In this way, the bands help track the movements of these otherwise secretive migrators. Sheri tells us that one tiny bird was caught this last January in Florida, and then again in June in Alaska. I ask her how it got that far in six months.

“We have no idea! Isn’t that wonderful?” She replies.

I am here to find out how I can help this imperiled bird. In Dark Night of the Hummingbird, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman describes the nocturnal hibernation of these dynamos, and laments that, “A lot of hummingbirds die in their sleep.” It is an idea that has worked its way into my mind and won’t let go. Why would nature make a creature whose very metabolism could kill it off each night? As if this affliction of physiology weren’t enough, all that I’ve read seems to predict extinction for this smallest of birds who seems to be succumbing to the dangers of civilization. It is only the barest hint of a purpose, but in the dark days of my post-termination funk, I cling to it: I will save the hummingbirds.

Sheri is the co-founder and director of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, and she literally wrote the book on hummingbirds: Peterson’s Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America (since Roger Peterson’s death in 1996, experts have penned his famous bird guides, though his paintings are still used in many of them). This afternoon, she sits at a long table, under a pavilion. She wears a khaki jacket with an enameled hummingbird pin and has her silvery hair pulled back in a perfunctory bun. Her eyes crinkle both when she smiles and when she squints through her readers at her delicate tasks. At her back, a grassy plain stretches in dulled ochre under the low clouds of late morning as she sets up her tools and notebooks. Around the table, a cheerful flock of women fuss and bustle, arranging the support materials: an extra feeder, brochures, and a donation box. One of the volunteers, a middle-aged woman in nurse’s shoes and a bright peach cardigan, gives each of the visitors a numbered sticker to wear. When our numbers are called in turn, she tells us with delight, we will have the chance to hold a hummingbird.

 

Just a couple of hours later, and a newly tagged, one-year old, black-chinned hummingbird is sitting in the flat palm of my hand. True to his name, he vibrates at so fast a speed against my skin that he seems to hum. Kathy, the volunteer in charge of placing birds on palms, says I am not feeling the bird’s heartbeat, as I had assumed, but his breath.

A hummingbird takes approximately 250 breaths a minute. I watch his eyes—black and rimmed by tiny eyelashes—as they blink in his still head. I can barely feel his feet: they are balled up underneath his narrow breast. I keep catching myself holding my own breath. It is as though I hold everything and nothing.

The bird rests on my open hand, recovering from his recent examination. He will catch several hundred breaths before escaping into the line of desert willows that edge the field around the banding session. I try to be still, but the red clay I’m standing on is full of fire ants. I shift my weight, step from one clump of sedge grass to another, to stop them from crawling up over my boots.

My bird is predominately green and dark gray. At only a year old, he doesn’t yet have his full black gorget for which he gets his name—instead his chin is a creamy gray with black spots. “Five o’clock shadow,” Kathy giggles. Hummingbirds have the smallest number of feathers in the bird kingdom, while whistling swans, the largest. This young bird is still shedding his nesting colors—each green feather (he sits so still I could almost count them) is edged in a tawny bar that breaks up his silhouette and helps to camouflage his tiny bird body in the nest he’s recently left. Once he has adjusted to the small ring of metal around his ankle, he hums away into the woods. I scribble to myself in my spiral notebook “check later: do birds have ankles?”

 

Phoenix is not an easy city to love. There are miles and miles of busy roads, the asphalt gone gooey in the summer heat, and they all seem lined with disintegrating strip malls. Escape to the cooler climates south isn’t always an option, and my research takes me one afternoon to the Desert Botanical Garden on the edge of town, to talk pollinators with Angela Elliott, one of the garden’s horticulturalists. We start with hummingbirds, but our conversation moves all over the garden until we find our selves in the Night Garden where Angela tells me the incredible story of the queen of the night.

In the summer, many desert flowers wait until nighttime to open. The bullish sun would singe delicate petals, and few pollinators dare run the 115° gauntlet of an August afternoon. But by dusk, the temperatures begin to drop, and a vespertine garden begins to open pale in the umbral landscape. Ghostly white to creamy yellow, the flowers seem to nod in the dark on invisible stems, sending heady scents onto the breeze.

The sweet smell of datura, echinopsis, and evening primrose blossoms wafts in and around the mesquite and sagebrush, as their white-petaled semaphores beckon to even the most near-sighted traveler. In the shadows, while hummingbirds drowse in possibly deadly torpor, the downy hawkmoths and migratory bats take over the job of handmaiden.

This grandest of the nocturnal flowers opens on gray branches that look like deadwood by day, sprawling under nurse paloverdes or acacia trees. Easily overlooked, the night-blooming cereus, or queen of the night, blooms for only a few hours. Yet its syrupy haze, redolent of brown-sugar-coated violets, promises a bounty of nectar to pollinators.

The cereus can’t self-pollinate. Some red-eye traveler needs to find its open flower, collect its pollen (either on fur or feather or scale) and carry it to another blossoming cereus. The stems bloom erratically in early to mid summer around the time the long-nosed and long-tongued bats are traveling north. The bats are following a nectar corridor that begins in Mexico and ends in Southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The plant saves a year’s worth of water, sweetening it in an underground tuber weighing as much as 40 pounds, to reward the lucky passerby. But in the desert, passersby are rare.

To ensure that a pollinator finds the bloom during its one-night only engagement, the cereus opens a snow-white flower as big as a teacup saucer. The outer petals are slender and curved, like chrysanthemums, while the inner petals are smoothly almond-shaped, reminiscent of a water lily. Dozens of petals frame a bushy, pale yellow fringe of stamens, thick with pollen. In the very center of the flower, smooth pistils curl inward, around the valuable nectar. The queen of the night resembles nothing so much as a bleached passion flower, turned inside out, and its intoxicating perfume can be detected for up to a quarter of a mile.

And yet, what good is a fine lure if the bats are two weeks early? What if the spring caterpillar season was more barren than usual, and the summer hawkmoths are few and far between? What if the flower is found, but there isn’t another cereus for miles? Bees and hummingbirds shun the dark; they cannot help the cereus, as they do the saguaro and desert verbena. Within minutes of sunrise, the queen’s white petals wilt shut and begin to brown.

If the flower is not pollinated, no fruit will form and the cereus will have to wait another year to try again. Even if it is alone among miles of desert, each year it will send out a fragrant smoke signal and fire a flare in the shape of yearning.

 

In early summer, with temperatures firmly rooted in the hundred-and-up range, visitors begin flocking to “flashlight tours” at the Botanical Garden. The diehard garden members stalk the cereus buds, hoping to catch the dramatic opening. They ask at the admissions booth in exaggerated stage whispers, “How’re the queens tonight?”

I have seen hummingbirds in the park in the daytime, but am curious to see the desert at night.

Tonight, there are no open cereus, and instead I end up along one of the looped paths, watching a single datura slowly uncoil in the gathering gloom. I admire its evolutionary tenacity, its ability to thrive in this inhospitable climate. I try to imagine how many flowers must have singed and died off in the sun’s glare before adapting. Now the datura thrives in millions of garden hedges, a household name.

While most of the garden guests are off looking at captive scorpions under black lights and squinting into the beds of saguaros, I am alone in a leafy front row: one trumpet flower is not enough to draw applause or flashbulbs. In the wild, the flowering—and the parade of bats and moths that follows—happens not in relative silence, but to the clamor of a different crowd: a desert ensemble of toads, ringtails, owls, and coyotes.

 

In front of the San Pedro House where Sheri does her banding, there are a couple of big flowery feeders designed to look especially delectable to migrating hummingbirds. When one of the birds approaches, it is not likely to notice the net hanging above the feeder. Sheri’s husband, wildlife biologist Tom Wood, is sitting with several other men on folding camp chairs about twenty feet away. The youngest man looks to be in his 40s and the oldest, perhaps 65. Their chair backs advertise Coleman and Sportsman’s Paradise; they wear windbreakers from feed companies and machine shops. They look like fishermen calmly waiting for a line to snap.

Tom has an unruly shock of gray hair and the countenance of a serious sea-captain. He holds a large black device with an adjustable antenna in both hands. It looks like the remote control for a giant model plane. He and the other men sit still and silent. With a hunter’s instinct he waits until conditions are just so, then flips a switch, dropping the net. The birds can fly faster than the net falls, so about half the time they catch nothing. When Tom’s reflexes manage to best a bird, one of his fishing buddies grabs a fabric cage and they both amble to the feeder. The buddy unzips the cage while Tom reaches under the net and gently grasps the hummingbird in his large, calloused hand. He folds his fingers over its back, closing the propeller wings and watching for the needle beak. He lifts the bird out from under the net, and pushes his hand into the smaller cage, while the other man works the zipper closed.

If there are older kids at the banding, Tom might let one of them carry the cage over to Sheri and the other volunteers. The cages are clipped to a device that looks like an old umbrella-style clothesline sized for a table top. When Sheri is ready for a bird, the note-taker on her left unclips one from the rack. Though she is a master at handling them, during the few hours of the banding, two birds still manage to slip free. One moment they are soft in her hand, getting measured, weighed—but if they feel any release in her fingers, they flash away behind her into the trees. When this happens she lets out an exasperated sigh. Each bird is an essential chance to learn and in learning, progress in understanding how these birds live and where they go when they leave. To lose even one is frustrating.

I am prepared: I have my camera, notebooks and several pens. I am wearing what I hope is a serious journalist’s outfit of khaki pants and a weatherproof shirt from REI. A pair of borrowed binoculars hang around my neck. I ask Sheri first if the vocal backyard birders I’ve read in many online forums are to be believed about the disappearing birds—are pesticides, cities, and freeways killing these essential pollinators? My hand, wielding a pen, hovers over the page, already practicing the shapes of my triumph over ecological pessimism.

“Hummingbirds don’t seem to be disappearing—but more data is needed to be sure,” she cautions, always the scientist. As she squeezes, pokes, and eyeballs the tiny birds that her field aides have caught, counting tail feathers, looking for eggs, lice, and fat stores, she explains the difficulty in making assumptions about an animal that we only have access to at an artificial food source.

“I thought all the pollinators were in trouble,” I mumble, staring into my notebook. I imagine I can see my thesis statement zip off the page like an errant black-chinned yearling.

Sheri and her team of volunteers are part of a network of banders across the country. Year after year, they gather small pieces of information that researchers can use to paint a picture of hummingbird populations in the US. For over 15 years, Sheri’s primary focus has been on the birds that travel through Arizona twice yearly on their migration route. What she has learned so far is that the ten-year trend is mostly stable, with a very slight decrease. She stresses very slight. I feel a familiar lump in my throat, but I am determined, this time, to keep it together.

“But the amateur reports seem so consistent.” I frown into my notebook with what I hope looks like studiousness instead of disappointment.

“We have to revise our expectations for what we can assume from the data we gather,” Sheri explains. I have already revised so many expectations in the last year, I am not sure I can bear more. She addresses the entire group and describes how backyard birders see fewer hummers one year and immediately sound the “endangered” alarm. However, bird feeders, she’s found, are only important to hummingbirds when wild sources of food are unavailable. A short rainy season, for example, will mean fewer wildflowers, such as the penstemons, on which the birds rely. Unlike robins and sparrows, hummingbirds are not domesticated—they will steer clear of us if they can. They suffer the cats, picture windows, and yard chemicals that come with the fluted tubes of red sugar water only when the meadows and flyways are barren. We tend to see them the most when they are struggling.

“They are very endangered in Uruguay,” Sheri adds, helpfully.

Uruguay, I think, is very far away.

“It’s different for honeybees,” she tells me, “and bats.” She uses her needle-nosed pliers to squeeze a band as big as the rings in a fine necklace chain around a bird’s leg. “His R5 is P, moderate grooves, moderate buff,” she tells the volunteer to her left. Who ever sat by the window watching a bat feeder, I wonder?

There is one more chance: the poem. I finally get the nerve up to ask her about the nocturnal tragedy of the hummingbirds. I affect my best insider’s tone as I ask, “So, is it true? Do a lot of hummingbirds die in their sleep?”

She doesn’t even glance up from the bird she’s weighing. “It’s possible,” she says, “but it would be very difficult to quantify.” I look at her for too long. The hand holding my pen floats down at my side, useless. She picks up a short length of straw and uses it to blow back the feathers on a young bird’s chest, then sets it down before speaking again. “Moderate body molt, light fat, dash for breeding, her g count is m=1.” The woman on her left writes notes in the ledger, quantifying a few parameters of the bird’s existence.

I stammer something about the poem, asking if she’s read it. She hasn’t. It seems unbelievable to me that a hummingbird expert wouldn’t have read everything related to hummingbirds, while Sheri is probably wondering why I would consider a poem scientific evidence of anything.

I want to explain how important poetry can become in a terrible desert lined in asphalt and grocery shelves. How I need a cadence, a music, to follow in this barren landscape—how I need a rhythm to write my purpose, my redemption. I want to plead with her to give me the hummingbirds to save. But I don’t say anything.

I am as much use to these birds as they are to the night flowers. Each trajectory: mine, the bird’s, the queen of the night’s, is separate and arcs through the desert away from the others. Does a hummingbird mourn those giant wilted flowers each morning for the bounty they held? Do the closed petals taunt her, calling out a feast was here, even as her waking heart sings the single note: nectar? There is a song the desert sings back—about enduring, one dark night at a time—but I am a guest here, and don’t yet speak the language.

I step back into the crowd of visitors and let others ask about sugar ratios for their bird feeders and the easiest fluted flowers to grow. I pack my notebook and pens and the camera away. Out beyond the banding session, the cottonwood trunks turn lilac, and the space beneath the line of brush around the tables grows indistinct in the dusky light. Night is falling, and Sheri’s work is done for the day. A few minutes later, Tom takes down the net and packs away his remote control while his fishing buddies fold up their chairs. After the last bird is weighed and charted, Sheri asks if there are any other questions. There are none. With practiced movements, she rolls up her pliers, calipers, and rings in a padded fabric sleeve printed with dark feathers. In the sky behind her, I catch a glimpse of a pink stain which spreads and deepens, just beyond the trees, tinting the tall grass in brief washes of gold before I head back to the city to revise.

An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Phoebe.
 


Chelsea Biondolillo’s prose has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Brevity, Passages North, Shenandoah, River Teeth, Fourth River, Hayden’s Ferry Review, NPR, Birding, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming and is the 2014-15 Olive B. O’Connor nonfiction fellow at Colgate University.

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