Speaking of Nature: A bird called Bert


  • The male hummingbird that sets up a territory in the columnist’s yard will always be known to his family as Bert Minushkin. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Monday, June 04, 2018

poiler alert! The following story contains certain inconvenient truths about the world of birds. Only those who are ready for what may be considered “bad news” should proceed. Others, who wish to maintain a comfortable robe of blissful ignorance, should think of something else to do.

Many years ago, too many to remember the exact number, my beautiful wife, Susan, saw a hummingbird for the first time and fell under its spell. What, after all, could be more enchanting than a bird so tiny and full of life as the ruby-throated hummingbird? Susan has loved this particular bird ever since and, as always, I found myself thinking of stories I could tell that would entertain her.

My longtime readers will probably recognize the fact that Susan was the one to come up with a name for this little bird. She remembered a wonderful man from her past — short of stature but broad in heart — and she named the hummingbird after him. That is how the particular bird that lived in my yard came to be known as Bert Minushkin.

Well, it didn’t take me long to start filling in the details. It turns out that the real-life Bert was married to an equally diminutive woman called Rae, so it was quite natural that the female hummingbird should also be called Rae. Every time either bird showed up, I would say, “There’s Bert,” or “There’s Rae.” It wasn’t long before Susan herself started mentioning Bert and Rae sightings.

The hook securely set, I then commenced with the stories. “Bert seems to be in a bit of an ill humor this afternoon,” I would say. “I don’t think he slept very well last night.” It was the absurdity of assigning such mundane details from our own human experience that seemed to delight Susan the most. It wasn’t so much what he was doing as much as it was why it was being done. The sillier the story the bigger the smile. I had found my true calling.

Let me give you a very quick example. I noticed this year that there were two male hummingbirds that were sitting in my lilac bushes and becoming very fussy with one another as they fought over who actually owned the hummingbird feeder on my deck. I asked Susan if real-life Bert Minushkin had a rival of some sort, and Susan somehow came up with a name. So I started weaving up a tale of conflict between our beloved Bert Minushkin and his nemesis, Dr. Gary Stein.

What tickled Susan’s funny bone to no end was the idea that a hummingbird would have such a formal title. I couldn’t say, “Gary is at it again.” It had to be something like, “Well, Bert and Dr. Gary Stein are at it again! They’re fighting like cats and dogs and Dr. Gary Stein almost flew into my head. We’ve got to get them to counseling before they kill us all!”

So, day after day, I would collect information on Bert’s behaviors and then relay them to Susan. Day after day became year after year, and somehow a decade went by. Each spring, I would keep my eyes peeled for the first glimpse of a hummingbird and every time I finally saw one I would announce that Bert had arrived. In the back of my mind, I always knew that the odds of it being the same bird grew more and more remote with the passing of each year, but the name stuck.

There were, however, certain hints that eventually led me to the incontrovertible truth that the original Bert no longer came to the deck. There was no physical clue, for the differences between one male hummingbird and the next are so minute that I had no real hope of picking up on a change, but the behavior of the different birds was strikingly different. Some were extremely mellow, as the original Bert had been. Others were a bit more hyper and flighty; definitely more difficult to “get to know.”

This year, when “Bert” finally arrived, I noticed that he was particularly calm and tolerant of me. I’d like to say that he was “friendly,” but I know that’s not truly the case. This bird was simply easy to spend time with. And that is when I committed a terrible mistake. I actually uttered the words, “This Bert Minushkin is really mellow.” Susan’s response was simply a tremulous, wavering “What?”

Well, it was as bad as letting it slip that Santa Clause wasn’t real. Susan was crushed. It had never occurred to her that a hummingbird might not live for more than 14 years. It had simply become so ingrained in me to say “Bert Minushkin” when I saw a hummingbird that the two ideas had become interchangeable in my mind.

We’ve managed to work through my blunder and I think that time will heal this little wound. In my mind, the hummingbirds that visit my deck will always be Bert and Rae, and there will always be drama whenever Dr. Gary Stein shows up and stirs the pot. I suppose the most important thing is that I get to know each Bert as well as I can. Hummingbirds really are charming little creatures that are well worth the time.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.