George Merrill November 2006

Anthropomorphism is for the Birds
George Merrill

     Recently, I watched as hummingbirds appeared at our feeder in St. Michaels more frequently than I’d seen them all summer. It was now beginning September. They behaved oddly.
      One would make for the feeder. Just as he got close enough to feed, another buzzed him and the two shot off with the speed of bullets. You could not tell who was in pursuit of whom. A third hummingbird would come to the feeder and hover thee, tentatively, beak high in the air as though cautious of dining with shabby clientele. Then, as she made for the feeder, the two others returned and set upon her. Then all three took off together in a flash. Within minutes the whole scenario repeated itself. By sundown they were still at it. What were they about?
      About 150 million years ago, birds first appeared on earth. About 149 million years later we showed up. Birds knew what they were about from the start, although we’ve never figured them out. We make things up about them, instead.
      Our romance with birds makes a strong case against the excesses of anthropomorphism (ascribing human characteristics to things not human). The bluebird and the hummingbird are a case in point. Paeans have been written about both and they enjoy such affection among the human family hat custom dwellings and specialty restaurants are frequently built to encourage them to settle nearby. Cardinals, blue jays and sparrows, even finches, all worthy and attractive birds, hardly ever enjoy the kind of VIP treatment bluebirds and hummingbirds get. Blackbirds, crows and starlings, like poor relatives, are left to fend for themselves in fair weather and foul. All in the name of anthropomorphism, or more accurately, prejudice.
      Thoreau attributes to bluebirds god-like powers: “The bluebird carries the sky on his back.” Birder Shirl Brunnel almost deifies them: “As long as there are bluebirds, there will be miracles and a way to find happiness.”
      Ascribing such characteristics to bluebirds I find grossly misleading. Honest, clear thinking birders report that bluebirds regularly attack and banish tree swallows who dare nest nearby and other reflective birders describe them as “...very combative [going] after other birds at the drop of a hat.” So much for the bluebird of happiness.
      Hummingbirds had me snookered for a long time. Anything short of adulation seemed almost profane. We put a hummingbird feeder on the porch only feet from where we sit in the morning, breakfasting. They drop in for a bite with us, or more accurately, for a quick sip. Poet Larry Gates describes the hummingbird: “the flower-seeker out of heaven” and Emily Dickinson rhapsodizes the hummingbird that “partakes without alighting, and praises as she goes.” I think that’s attributing to them more than reality warrants.
      Let me be clear: the hummingbird is, without a doubt, an enchanting bird. She may be the only bird able to slam into reverse in mid-air before coming to a complete stop while never sustaining any injuries. Watching them can be entertaining for some, and for others inspirational.
      Nevertheless I can’t underestimate how important it is not to impart to any creature about whom we know very little, the attributes that we imagine they possess or even wish that they did. It can work great harm. Take the bat and the owl. We attribute creepy things to them only because of the way they look, but they aren’t that different from most other winged critters. Like prejudice, anthropomorphism can be cruel.
      Think that the genteel hummingbird delicately sips only nectar and sweet red sugar water at domestic hummingbird bars? No way. Carbs are just a side dish. Hovering in the air, hummingbirds need thirty-five calories a minute. So they eat flies, ants, beetles and tiny wasps for protein, and eat them alive, at that, catching some on the wing. The hummingbird is not a finicky eater.
      Anthropomorphism taken to the extreme becomes prejudice, another form of projection. Would we bar hummingbirds from our feeders or banish them from our yards, or deny them wildlife protection rights because of their peculiar sexual proclivities, which, although normative in their world, don’t meet our own expectations of customary sexual bonding? Would we assume because they behave differently than we do that they were depraved? Maybe we wouldn’t with birds but we sure do with people.
      The male hummingbird could stretch the envelope of tolerance for many people. After the female gets a male’s attention, he flies seventy-five to a hundred feet into the air above her, and placing his bill downward, propels himself toward her like a rocket, halting just a couple of inches short of her head. He mates with her for all of four seconds and is gone. She’s left to make her own nest, raise the kids by herself and remain a single mom. The problem here is the same with prejudice as with anthropomorphism: we judge others by the way we think things should be. Holding hummingbirds strictly to our standards can leave us only one conclusion: the male’s a sleaze. However, we simply don’t know enough about birds and the gene strategies by which they are driven to behave.
      I’ll bet if a male starling behaved in the same way, we’d condemn him on the spot. But because we’ve decided the hummingbird is cute and charming, we shrug off his apparent callow behavior as, “just the way they are.”
      I think hummingbirds are cute and so my prejudices incline me to think well of them. Their behavior seemed so downright ornery that day that I worked overtime to draw a kindly conclusion. Then I thought of my mother-in-law’s expression “journey proud.” Before taking a long trip, she’d get the jitters getting her itinerary in order and handling the multitude of managerial tasks travel requires. She’d say, “I’m journey proud.” That’s it, I thought, the hummingbirds were just journey proud.
      In the fall, hummingbirds travel south, some as much as three thousand miles. At twenty-five miles an hour, three thousand miles is a long trip. Hummingbirds must have it together for such a rigorous journey. That’s why they were as jumpy as fleas that day and just couldn’t sit still at the table, so to speak. They were venting their anxiety, going at it the way we snap at each other when we’re on edge.
      A shamelessly anthropomorphic conclusion to be sure but prejudice confounds sound judgement. If I conclude that hummingbirds are good, then I will work to explain them in the best light. If I harbor a dim view of them then no matter what they do it will never be right.
      Anthropomorphism, like prejudice, is for the birds.