Commentary: What hummingbirds tell us about social distancing with the neighbours

Commentary: What hummingbirds tell us about social distancing with the neighbours
Colin and Kate Berbaum
A hummingbird enjoys breakfast at Shawnigan Lake on May 20, 2020.

I force myself to look away from the computer monitor; away from the Google News screed of pandemic heartbreak, and now the Snowbirds tragedy. Outside my living room window, there is an arbutus tree. It shouldn’t be there: a bird deposited the seed a dozen or more years ago, where the soil is richer and wetter than its preferred rocky outcroppings where roots dry out from time to time.

Still, it has thrived and is now large enough to give shade on hot summer afternoons. At the moment the tips of its branches are covered with flowers, like tiny white starfish, suspended in the air. Beneath one swaybacked branch, we hung a hummingbird feeder, and now, just past sunset, the yard is bathed in a rose quartz light, and the hummingbirds return for their supper.

The males are usually impatient, intolerant, and territorial, and chase each other away, (I leave it to you to make broader comparisons), but after all it is spring. Tonight, though, they have parked their quarrels and share the bounty, eyeing each other warily from opposite sides before resting their wings and dipping their beaks.

Past the feeder, across the street, there’s an older man, older than I, anyway, loading up a U-Haul van, moving out of the basement suite in my neighbour’s house. He’s made a couple of trips already, he looks tired, but there he is, tying up a shelf that doesn’t quite fit in the back of the van.

I make up a story to fill in the blanks: he’s lost his job because of the lockdown, and needs to find a cheaper place to live. Or his wife, whom he left a year ago, wants him back. That seems a happier version. But whether it’s laziness, shyness or, you know, trying to comply with social distancing, I don’t go out to offer a hand, and that embarrasses me, so instead I go to the kitchen and pour a rye and coke and return to my chair to watch.

A rain shower begins as he ties up another shelf. He glances at the sky, maybe wondering: “how much harder are you going to make this?” and tugs at the tie ropes before hopping into the driver’s seat. It occurs to me, as I gulp down my drink, that I know more about the hummingbirds than my neighbours, though we’ve lived on this street for twenty-five years. Households have come and gone, over the years, and sometimes we share pleasantries or borrow the odd tool or wave as we stroll down the street. But that’s about it. And this pandemic gives me yet another excuse to put off introducing myself to the new family half-way up the block.

He revs the engine and drives off, out of sight, down the road to the highway, either north to the ferry terminal, or south toward downtown. I’ll never see him again. I think: he might have become a friend, if I’d made an effort. But I chase that thought way with another mouthful of rye. Once again, it’s just me and the hummingbirds. They’re at it again: the truce is broken and they’re chasing each other around the arbutus, probably hurling insults in hummingbird-speak. It figures. These tiny bullies are happy to drink from my feeder, hang out on the branches of my tree. It’s always take, take, take with this lot, and they never once say thanks. Makes me think that maybe I’ll try harder with the new neighbour.

Mike Ippen lives in Central Saanich. His new novel, Saint Illuminator’s Daughter, is available on Amazon and Indigo. When not writing, Mike may be spotted in his garden feeding hummingbirds or passing judgement on delinquent squirrels.

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