[I wrote this reflective essay this summer, drawing on memories from Africa, as I’d written about in my memoirs of Gabon and Mali. This essay is twice as long as my usual WOW posts, but I think WOW readers may enjoy it nevertheless. I hope so.]
She hid behind a pillar on my patio, waiting … waiting. She knew eventually others would be drawn – instinctively? magically? – to the nectar in my feeder. And she was ready for them. Not to welcome but to attack.
I watched her in awe. Is this the way all Mexican hummingbirds behave on their own turf? I wondered. She was ferocious, pugnacious, loud.
Whenever unsuspecting hummingbirds swooped into my patio area and attempted to perch at the blue glass feeder, this one would shoot out from her hiding place, flapping and screeching. “Get OUT of here!” I imagined her screeches to mean. “This is MY territory!”
Always, in a terrified twinkling, the other hummingbirds would put it in reverse (hummingbirds being the only birds capable of flying backward) and dart off without even putting up a fight.
I named her Colibri (the Spanish word for hummingbird) and grew to love her, as though she were my pet and she belonged to me. You GO, girl! I cheered her silently, as I watched daily from the sidelines. She was dull-gray coated (surely female?), fat (maybe pregnant?), and totally fearless. She let me take her photo and even paint her. I thought she was beautiful.
Here I go again, I thought.
This was not the first time I’d fallen in thrall of a bird at close range. When I was in the Peace Corps in Gabon, a Francophone country the size of Colorado situated on Africa’s equator, in the late ‘90s, living alone in a small house on a hill in the middle of the country’s thick rainforest, I fell in love with a rooster. I named him Dîner (pronounced DEE-nay, the French word for both “dinner” and “to dine”), not because I planned to eat him – Oh, no! – but because I liked the regal sound.
Dîner was dignified, proud, and brave. I loved the way he strutted around my house – after risking his life by crossing the busy road to beg food from me – kingly head held high, black tail feathers shining in the equatorial sun, copper chest puffed way out, like he owned the place. And what a voice! Vibrant, piercing – ear-splitting, in fact. When he hopped up on my front porch to serenade me at dawn, I found the sound of his commanding cock-a-doodle-doos strangely comforting.
Funny things happen to Peace Corps volunteers living alone in far-off places tourists seldom see, on the other side of the globe from Fairway on New York’s Upper Broadway or Balducci’s in the Village, where the only poultry I’d known up until joining the Peace Corps came either cold, raw, skinned, and wrapped in plastic or rotisseried. Some volunteers were known to sit and stare at one wall of their hut for hours on end. Others spent whole days deep frying beignets. I became emotionally attached to a neighbor’s rooster.
The little Gabonese kids in my neighborhood, who didn’t need much convincing to believe that the only white woman in their town was truly strange, thought I’d really gone mad when I began to call to the rooster, as if calling a dog to come home. “Yooo-hoooo! … cluck-cluck-cluck! … viens ici, mon petit Dîner! (come here, my little dinner!),” I’d call to him when I had something special for him to eat. The kids gaped when they saw the rooster strut across the road to eat rice out of my hand.
As you may have guessed, this story ends predictably badly. After some months of loving Dîner and fattening him up with everything I could think of that qualified as rooster food, I had to leave my post in the rainforest and visit the capital city, Libreville, for a short while. When I returned home to my house on the hill and called Dîner’s name, he didn’t appear. I was crestfallen. Didn’t he love me anymore? Soon after, I learned from the kids that Dîner had indeed in my absence become a neighbor’s dinner.
Nevertheless, I didn’t learn my lesson. Two years later, while living alone in Ségou, Mali, West Africa, and working on an independent economic development project there, I fell in love with another bird, this time a Senegal parrot I named Irwin, after the American missionary couple who bequeathed him to me before they returned to the States.
“He’s nasty,” the wife told me. “Ever since my husband and I had his wings clipped to keep him from flying away, he’s been in a foul mood.”
No wonder, I thought. “I’ll take him,” I said.
The thought of another feathered pet in my solitary life in Africa appealed to me. So I brought Irwin home and found the perfect spot in my courtyard for his artisan-made, globe-shaped cage – in the crook of the central branches of the young mango tree directly in front of my study window. This way I could watch him primp and preen and pace in his cage as I sat at my desk in the early morning, and he in turn could watch me as I wrote and read and went through my daily morning ritual. He and I could commune with the dawn in our respective ways, together.
Irwin was the same pale green color, tapered oblong shape and roughly eight-inch length as a young mango leaf, so he was perfectly camouflaged in the mango tree. To make him happy, since his missionary-clipped-wings precluded him from flying, I tied together several of the branches of the nearby mango trees to his tree, so he could stroll along this aerial walkway when I let him out of his cage after sunrise.
His daytime strolls – more like military struts – from mango tree to mango tree seemed to delight him. He whistled, chortled, laughed and sang what sounded like freedom songs as he swaggered among the high branches. His squawky songs seemed to say, “Look at ME! I am FREE! I can do as I PLEASE!” Secretly, I applauded.
Then, just before sunset, at about 6:30 every evening, he’d swagger back down to his cage, knowing I had his dinner – fresh water and freshly shucked corn-on-the-cob – waiting for him. Once he was inside his cage and gustily munching corn, I closed the cage door, safely locking him in for the night.
In time, though, like an errant lover, Irwin sometimes failed to return to his cage in the crook of the young mango tree in the evening, and I’d be left to worry. At sunset I would wait for him, call to him, then look anxiously for him among the high branches. I’d leave his cage door open, with his waiting dinner inside, just in case his absence was voluntary and he might change his mind. If at dawn I saw that he was back in his cage, my heart would sing and I’d forgive his errant ways.
But in mid-April, 2000, Irwin was gone for days. At one point I could see him, his small, leaf-like body silhouetted against the clear blue Malian sky, at the top of the tallest mango tree in my courtyard. I called to him sweetly. He wouldn’t budge. The tree was too tall for me to climb. I didn’t have a net. I couldn’t get to him to recapture him. I could not enforce my will on him, force him to come back to me. He refused to come down. He was free to choose his own destiny. At dawn two days later I found his dead body on top of his cage.
It’s been weeks now since I last saw Colibri, and, naturally, I’ve been worried.
I recently returned to the shop where I bought the blue glass hummingbird feeder to ask an expert.
“I’m looking for a particular colibri,” I said to the shopkeeper.
She stared at me like I was loco.
“Maybe she’s flown north, to estados unidos?” I ventured.
“The hummingbirds of this region of Mexico don’t migrate,” she informed me flatly.
“Oh,” I said, “I don’t blame them! I plan to stay put here myself.”
So I’ve been left to my own vivid imagination: Maybe Colibri was murdered by one of the many hummingbirds she’d antagonized. Or maybe, as I write this, she’s home in a nearby tree, tending to newly hatched, tiny, hungry hummingbird babies huddled at the bottom of the nest she’d made for them, a nest no bigger than a delicate demitasse cup. Maybe she’s never been happier!
Maybe she’ll return to my feeder one of these days.
Until then I must take a lesson from her on how to sit still on my patio — alone, observant, and waiting.