The last day of September was warm, but the little bird hadn’t been able to find many petunia or geranium blossoms as she flitted from one yard to another. Just before the sun went down she discovered a feeder filled with clear sweet nectar. With no other birds around to taunt and tease her, she was able to drink her fill. Afterward, she perched on a nearby line tied between two rough-hewn vigas, under cover, and fell asleep.
As the darkness deepened and the air cooled, her heartbeat slowed and body temperature dropped. Sometime during the night her toes loosened their grip, just slightly, and she slipped backward.
The next morning I found the hummingbird hanging from my clothesline.
That was more than two years ago and the memory of the little bird came back to me when I saw Judy Tuwaletstiwa’s tzintzuntzun:awakened by a dream at the New Mexico Museum of Art (NMMoA). It was a cold January morning and I wasn’t getting any work done so I took a break and went to the museum.
Tzintzuntzun (pronounced zin-zoon-zoon) is the indigenous Mexican word for hummingbird and Tuwaletstiwa’s piece celebrates the life of one of the tiny creatures whose nest and remains she discovered near her studio and preserved under plexiglass–the beak, a wing, sixty-four miniscule feathers painstakingly arranged in a grid.
I stood and examined those feathers just like I had studied the bird on my portal. She didn’t appear to be breathing as I took advantage of the opportunity to get an up close look; I thought she was dead. While Dave carefully disengaged her feet from the cord, I held a paper bag. It was then that we detected the tiniest of movements.
I traded the bag for a shoebox and we set the hummingbird in the sun on our east portal so we could keep an eye on her while we ate a bowl of cereal.
Lanny Chambers, a hummingbird expert, has since told me that the bird was probably in torpor, a short-term state similar to hibernation, used by some animals and birds to slow their metabolisms, conserve energy, and survive cold nights. Normally, the bird would have roused herself shortly before sunrise. Chambers thought the bird I found was probably an inexperienced youngster.
While we drank our coffee the bird began to stir. She fluttered her wings, raising up a few inches, and within moments was out of the shoebox. She paused for a moment on the branch of a pinyon tree and then took off. She was headed south the last time we saw her.
Note: I also discovered several thousand butterflies at the NMMoA and wrote about them in a guest post for their blog.