For years, I have enjoyed the antics of hummingbirds zipping along in front of my office window.
But something was different this year. This past weekend, I was mesmerized by the aerial displays occurring outside my writing window. I’d never before seen two hummingbirds chase one another with such intensity. Sure, they’re always territorial over food and aren’t good at sharing, but this pair was weaving in and out of razor-sharp saguaros, getting awfully close to my widows, zipping between spiky palo verde tree branches and moving at breakneck speed.
When they finally would stop, I noted that one of them – my male Anna’s – couldn’t seem to find his equilibrium. He’d try to still himself on a tiny branch, and his head would bob and sway like a dizzied top. Only when I secured the binoculars to understand why a smaller Anna’s would be in such aggressive pursuit of a larger Anna’s, did I realize the smaller was not an Anna’s at all.
We don’t see them often, as they are migratory (and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why the migration is now… It seems awfully late to be heading north!). Since I’d only seen a Rufous once or twice, I grew very impatient with my Anna’s, who was bullying the visitor (this male Anna’s is the reason I put up two feeders; he was so territorial, he wouldn’t let the females feed).
I managed to play referee, which allowed the Rufous some feeding time. Then I went to town to run errands. And when I returned … Something significant had transpired … The Rufous was now guarding the feeder, and the Annas’ (male and female) were nowhere to be seen.
I did some research on Rufous hummers and quickly learned from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology that the Rufous is “the feistiest hummingbird in North America” … “They are relentless attackers at flowers and feeders, going after (if not always defeating) even the large hummingbirds of the Southwest, which can be double their weight.”
Gulp. Suddenly my allegiance was called into question. I’d been so excited about this new, novel character … But my poor, reliable, familiar Anna’s…
Who was this tiny, scrappy male honing in on my year-long residents’ feeders, taking what had been theirs for many a season? Without hesitation, I sided with my Anna’s. I’d grown to love them. My relationship with them was deeper.
I did a little more research, only to realize that this little Rufous male was not a male at all. This ball-busting bird was a female. Gulp. And once again, my sympathies changed … how was she able to travel these long distances and so courageously take on these males who were twice her size, raiding foreign feeders in her quest for survival? Tenacity. Fearlessness. And even genetics, according to The Lab… “Rufous Hummingbirds have the hummingbird gift for fast, darting flight and pinpoint maneuverability. They are pugnacious birds that tirelessly chase away other hummingbirds, even in places they’re only visiting on migration.”
For Readers, Writers: It struck me that my flip-flopping sympathies and rollercoaster emotions are the stuff of good fiction. This is exactly what good storytelling does: Skilled authors can guide us into rooting for one character, then the next minute another – in a way that often means we are unable to reconcile in our heads and hearts how we can feel so strongly about both protagonist and villain. We seek emotion when we read, and when an author can lead us through the gamut – joy, anger, happiness, confusion – we catch our collective breath because we’ve felt something. This is good storytelling.
And as if to have the last word on this topic of good writing, my hummingbirds threw me one more storytelling curveball … this morning, a new discovery: the arrival of a second female Rufous. Now who do I root for? How will this story end? Who will win the battle of the feeders? The two Rufouses or the Anna’s? How long will the visitors stay? Will my Anna’s come back home (they are nowhere to be seen)?
Aren’t these the kinds of questions that keep readers flipping pages? Do you enjoy that kind of emotional back-and-forth in your fiction? Do you incorporate it into your fiction? What are your favorite books that offer this kind of emotional tug-and-pull?