Aug 1 2016

Desert Duel

Melissa Crytzer Fry

For years, I have enjoyed the antics of hummingbirds zipping along in front of my office window.

Male Anna’s with sun reflecting off magenta head. Please — click to enlarge.

Without the sun’s reflection, the male Anna’s appears to have a black head. But his feathers are a shimmery green. Click to enlarge.

You may recall my various posts and photos of Anna’s Hummingbird babies over the years. This year has been no exception. We did, in fact, have a successful fledge of babies this spring:

Mama trying to coax baby from under the breezeway. Click to enlarge.

Baby made it safely to the low branches of a palo verde.

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.

Meet the Rufous Hummingbird. Click to enlarge.

In sunlight, the Rufous appears orange-brown. Click to enlarge.

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.

Without direct sunlight, the Rufous appears green with some rust coloring on the flanks. Click to enlarge.

Without direct sunlight, the Rufous appears green with some rust coloring on the flanks. Click to enlarge.

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.

My beloved Anna’s male.

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.”

The male Rufous, unlike the female, has an entire head resembling hot embers. She has only this small patch.

The male Rufous, unlike the female, has an entire head resembling hot embers. She has only this small patch.

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?


20 Responses to “Desert Duel”

  • avatar Jessica McCann Says:

    What a great post. I had no idea hummies were so fiesty! Regarding fiction, I love a strong, unpredictable female character. So this Rufus hummer is right up my alley. Your emotional roller coaster with this story reminds me of how I felt reading THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. At first, I adored the main female character. Then I hated her. Then I loved her again, but I was mad at her. Then I forgave her for the mistakes she’d made. Phew. Talk about emotional back-and-forth. Still one of my favorite reads.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Thanks, Jessica. You are SO right — Light Between Oceans did this terrifically, and is one of the reasons it’s one of my favorites of all time as well. I’d add to it THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfeld, because it was a book that not only tugged at my emotions, but it also helped me into the minds of the protagonist and also death-row inmates, giving me pause for great empathy.

    [Reply]

  • avatar linda anselmi Says:

    Awesome pics! For me, framing and perspective is key in a story. One of my favorite ‘sympathy for the devil’ type of story was Dean Koontz’s Watchers. Although I didn’t want the horrific govt war monster to win, making it sympathetic to the reader — made the story!! It wouldn’t have been any where near as compelling and memorable without it.

    We are seeing multiple changes (evolution?) take place around our yard. More blue jays, less lizards. More dragonflies, less butterflies. New small hawk (looks falconish) boldly swooping through and leaving a pile of dove feathers several times a week. We can hear the calls back and forth to the young, so recognize the need. Still ugh…

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Such a great point about villains being sympathetic. It’s one of the rules of fiction, for sure. And I agree that not all bad guys are ALL bad. When they ARE portrayed that way in fiction, they’re one-dimensional and they don’t resonate with readers.

    Interesting about the changes in your backyard. Our friends who do condor research in the Grand Canyon say that birds that should NOT be that far north are… and birds that shouldn’t be south, ARE… So things are wonky. Maybe climate change? (The pile of feathers… Hard to see, I know).

    [Reply]

  • avatar Kathy Becraft Says:

    Hummingbirds are some of my favorite mighty mouse birds. The Rufous is new to me. Writing about “the duel” and giving the facts are your talent and you do it well. Very entertaining!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Today, the Rufous — just now — seems to be playing a bit nicer. She let a female Anna’s on one of the feeders AND allowed another hummer up in the tree near her. I THINK I may have some Costa’s out there now! It’s a regular hummingbird sanctuary! (Was just thinking how I miss our hikes!)

    [Reply]

  • avatar linda anselmi Says:

    May I ask what kind of camera you use. I like taking close-up pics of plants and insects. Using my tablet, because there are just too many camera choices hard to know where to begin.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Hi Linda — it’s a Canon PowerShot SX50HS… Kind of a ‘bridge’ camera — in that it’s a bridge between a point-n-shoot digital and a fancy/expensive DSLR. Now if you really mostly want to take close-up shots, I can ask my friend Kathy, above, what she had. It was a small digital camera with a display viewfinders (vs the one you put your eye to) and it took INCREDIBLE close up shots.

    [Reply]

  • avatar linda anselmi Says:

    yes. please. I love to focus on the fine detail. And a smaller camera sounds perfect.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Cherry Says:

    What adorable birds you have just outside your window . I have never seen humming birds , the colours are so vibrant . You lucky mixt you ….great post Melissa
    Cherryx

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    They are so sweet! I keep forgetting that hummingbirds aren’t found in Europe. I hope you see one in your lifetime; their aerial acrobatics are just incredible. I had one feed from my hand in May (using a small handheld feeder). THAT was just so, so much fun!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    Gosh, your hummingbirds there are so much prettier than the ones we get here. And I think ours are precious; don’t get me wrong. I was sitting in the melting heat for an hour yesterday just to watch them buzz in and out of our feeders, but still. Both species of yours are breathtakingly beautiful! I’ve always thought hummingbirds were so special. I heard someone say they’re like fairies, and I think that captures it perfectly. Tiny, magical, colorful little things.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Do you know what species you have in Texas? We also have Costa’s (bright violet), but I’ve yet to get a good picture of one. I can certainly understand taking time to sit in the heat watching them. I am OFTEN distracted by them, as they fly right up to my window and peek in several times a day.

    And guess what? My Rufous continued along her migratory route today. She was gone by 10 a.m. Order has been restored for my Anna’s. All is right in the world (except I miss that fiesta, pugnacious gal already).

    YES- they are like fairies. So magical and aerodynamic.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Annie Neugebauer Reply:

    No, I have no idea! I’ve never taken the time to look up birds before, even though my dad used to love them. Ours are tiny and mostly an almost-drab brown. I’m glad your regulars are back to normal. 🙂

    [Reply]

  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Oh my blessed word — the photographs you shared are incredible. You could do a hummingbird calendar!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    You are too kind! I added another feeder, so we have at least a dozen of these guys zipping around. The Rufouses left, then came back — now I have males at my feeder also!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Leah Singer Says:

    Such amazing little creatures! We’ve already encountered tons of new little birds in Indiana. They are fascinating to watch and certainly do inspire!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I can’t wait to hear about the other wildlife sightings you encounter! It will be an adventure; bet you never thought you’d be moving to Indiana! You grew up in CA, right?! Culture shock!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Nina Says:

    I love the story telling analogy! Perfectly apt.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Emma Says:

    who took those pictures ? looks amazing…

    [Reply]

Leave a Comment