The hummingbird (Family Trochilidae, lit. ‘Chill, dude’) is a flapping fiasco whose continued existence is a credit to the tenacity of life, once alive, to continue living, even if it is only for a short three-to-four year lifespan. Overreacted squeals of excitement over a hummingbird showing up at our hummingbird feeders notwithstanding, the truth is that, in all likelihood, the hummingbird suffers from a host of ailments, among them malnourishment, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), hypertension, a drug addiction, and a pretty gnarly case of jock itch.
Hey guys, the bird that shouldn’t be alive is back!
Any nutritionist can plainly see that the hummingbird is anorexic, but nutritionists make up only a small percentage of bird watchers, and the hummingbird has almost everyone else fooled. Friends and relatives jokingly ascribe its tiny size to that fact that it ‘eats like a bird,’ but still, when asked about its appearance in interviews, a hummingbird will insist that it eats all the time and then make a big show of eating a donut while the interviewer’s still in the room. But facts don’t lie. Proof of an eating disorder epidemic among hummingbirds lies at the extremes of the hummingbird weight spectrum. On one end, at 1.8 grams and only 2 inches in length, the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is the smallest bird on the planet. And the largest hummingbird, the so-called Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas) of the Andes Mountains, weighs in at a mere eighteen grams. It goes without saying that any BMIs derived from these figures would be great causes of concern for a physician. Yet we find their delicate, fragile appearance just completely wonderful, not really ever hearing what we’re saying when we say things like ‘It’s so tiny!’ and ‘Wow, it looks great!’ and ‘Have you been working out?’
Yet despite being only hours away from starvation at any given moment, the hummingbird cannot calm down and focus. While its teachers describe it as ‘boisterous,’ the truth is that it suffers from a pretty severe case of ADD, and being the only bird in the entire world that can fly backwards, sideways, directly up, directly down, and hover doesn’t help things, either. Its homework is a disaster. Thus, although it’s endemic to the Americas – North, South and Cental – the hummingbird is unable to point out any of these places on a map.
Meanwhile, while the anorexia and ADD go undiagnosed, the hummingbird stands most precariously on the edge of a heart attack. Some hummingbirds, during flight, can get their heart rates up to 1260 beats per minute1. Furthermore, some species take about 250 breaths a minute and flap their wings up to 80 times per second. You’d think someone would notice. But no, we find its acute tachycardia cute.
Oh look! His heart is gonna explode!
The common thread in all this is the hummingbird’s addiction to its drug of choice, floral nectar. Easy to make and disturbingly easy to find, floral nectar is a chemical compound consisting primarily of fructose (a 6-carbon polyhydroxyketone – available over the counter) and sucrose (technically: α-D-glucopyranosyl-(1↔2)-β-D-fructofuranoside – found in packets at any Starbucks). Like opium, it’s made by flowers — all the plants have to do is combine the two saccharide components (usually in the bathtub of a rented house).
There’s also a man-made version. Colored bright red to court its hopelessly addicted patrons, this artificial nectar is known on the street by a variety of hummingbird slang terms including: N-train, Sangria del Diablo, Beak Candy, Crimson Tweaker, Beijing Sugar, Kool Aid, Burmese Disco, Potpourri, Big Red, Skrump, Skrimp, Weasel, Cooler, Slurp, The Scarlet Letter, El Capitan, Fraggle Rock, Aqua Roja del Fresno, Sweet Ruby Slipper, and Juice. Yet despite the prevalence, we turn a blind eye, pretending not to see the damage we’re causing.
As expected, this nectar addiction further compounds the hummingbird’s already myriad issues. It has no teeth. It has no friends (hummingbirds and robins used to be tight… until the DVD player suddenly disappeared). And really, it has no self control. While all of the hundreds of species of hummingbirds would make excellent subjects for D.A.R.E. posters, the hummingbird constantly promises that it’s going to quit nectar tomorrow, but it never does. And what do we do this whole time? We leave their fix in our backyards.
The most impressive fact about hummingbirds may be that they are functional addicts. After all their personal problems and self-destructive behavior (that we encourage), they still somehow manage to hold down their part-time gigs of pollinating plants, eating insects (their rare source of protein) and working the counter at your local adult book store. Oh, and their nests are immaculate. But whatever self-esteem they might have ever had has long ago been replaced by deep, nectar-induced paranoia.
‘Shhhh. Did you hear that? Shut the blinds, man.’
But functional or not, we all know how this story ends. Cornered in his nest by a paramilitary army of nectar-running thugs, the hummingbird loads his grenade launcher, blasts through the door and stands at the top of the staircase, screaming over the gunfire (and his 1260-beats-per-minute heart rate). Then he encourages everyone to ‘say hello to my little friend,’ but the accent isn’t quite right and comes off as more Italian than Cuban, and it’s punctuated with awkward silence and a couple half-hearted smiles.
Then he gets shot like four hundred times.
1 The average resting human heart rate is 72 bpm. Maybe, after a few Red Bulls (or a liter of floral nectar), and a half hour of wind sprints, you could get it up to 230. But call an ambulance first.