Speaking of Nature: The Hanson Brothers

Published: 8/24/2020 10:22:40 AM

True lovers of hockey are already smiling. To invoke the name of the Hanson brothers is to invoke the purest spirit of joyful, violent mayhem; the exuberance of youthful, adrenaline-fueled energy. These brothers were introduced to the world in the film “Slap Shot” (perhaps the finest movie ever made) and remain indelibly burned into the memory of anyone who has ever seen them. I have never noticed anything other than a broad, hungry smile pass across the face of anyone who hears the name and knows its meaning. If you have never seen this movie, then drop everything and do so immediately.

Shift environments from ice hockey rink to the deck at my house and you will find a similar scene of adolescence run amok. This happens every year in the second half of August and for 3-4 weeks the deck hosts what I call “the hummingbird wars.” This is a time of gladiatorial combat in which fun seems to be the driving factor. Juvenile ruby-throated hummingbirds exploring the limits of their physical abilities wage an unrelenting war on one another for access to the prize of prizes — a freshly-stocked hummingbird feeder.

I’ve seen this sort of spectacle year after year, but last week I saw a contest that struck me as legendary in its character and quality. There were indeed three juvenile hummingbirds involved in this epic melee and from what I could tell they were actually all young males. Thus, the connection was made between the tiny pugilists I watched and the mythological Hanson brothers. It truly was remarkable.

It was late afternoon and I was sitting on my deck, which is on the east side of my house. This puts it in the shade after about 3 p.m. and allows me to sit out and enjoy the place without being roasted alive in the reflector oven that is my deck any earlier in the day. The glass table at which I sit is approximately 12 feet from a hummingbird feeder, which gives me a very good view of the action. The sky was blue, there was a nice breeze moving past me and the hummingbirds were at it.

The most common sort of combat seems to take the form of the “surprise” ambush. I use quotes because there seems to be no actual surprise involved at any time. The birds all beat their wings in such a manner as to make the most “humming” noise as possible and they seem to take great relish in “pouncing” on one another and then engaging in long, high-speed chases. There is often a great deal of chipping involved and I have often imagined that the young birds are recreating battle scenes between X-Wings and T.I.E fighters from the Star Wars movies.

Well, at one point things amped up when two of the young birds squared off in what seemed to suddenly be less playful and more hostile postures. They hovered in front of one another, then moved upward in perfect synchrony before bashing into one another, bellies first. Like little Sumo wrestlers they seemed intent on pushing each other backward and they got so close to one another that neither could maintain their hovering. Together, wings slapping together and chipping their guts out, the two birds fell toward the ground and smacked into the railing of the deck; making an alarming “thud” as they hit.

They bounced apart, zipped off in different directions and then met again for another face-to-face ascent into the air. They went up 10, 15, 20 feet and then hovered motionless in front of one another. However, this time they didn’t try the Sumo maneuver again. Clearly they had learned from their failure, but this did not deter them from engaging in this lively conflict for the rest of the evening. By the time I headed in for dinner they were still at it and from what I could tell there was no “winner.”

The mischievous aggression of these young hummingbirds is not merely directed at one another. They will chase honeybees, chickadees, blue jays or anything else that stumbles into their airspace. Even I am not spared their attention and on more than one occasion I have been the target of barnstorming runs that have the birds passing so close to my head that I can feel my hair move in the wind of those tiny wings. If you have a hummingbird feeder in your yard, then now is the time to set up a chair next to it and see what happens. Chances are you are in for a fun, exhilarating, laugh-in-the-face-of-death encounter with this year’s newest generation of daredevils.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years and (so far) he has survived every one of his encounters with young ruby-throated hummingbirds. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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