Sharing the garden with wildlife offers lessons in bravery

Posted July 30, 2010, at 6:27 p.m.

A dead black spruce towers over the southeast corner of Marjorie’s garden, its slender trunk rising at least 100 feet and ending in closely spaced limbs. Some of these limbs are several yards long and jut straight out or angle upward, dense with lateral twigs; others are broken back to short stubs. Dominating the view from the bedroom window, this snag is my first glimpse of the garden each morning.

We sip our first cups of coffee and talk about the life in this old snag. We watch a gray squirrel scamper down the trunk — a rare visitor in red spruce forests where red squirrels exhibit dominance — while a hairy woodpecker chisels holes in the tip of the trunk looking for grubs.

Other mornings there have been crows and mourning doves perched on the highest branches. I think they come to watch the sun rise and the Union River flow down to the sea.

Other birds that frequent this spruce snag include a pileated woodpecker, numerous nuthatches, and once a bald eagle. In the last week, however, the snag’s topmost branches became an exclusive morning perch for an immature merlin, or pigeon hawk. We came to realize there were actually two young merlins, although they showed up together only once.

As long as a merlin was present, motionless except for its slowly turning head, the garden’s songbirds were still and silent. Activity at the porch feeders and in nearby branches ceased as chickadees, nuthatches, purple finches, white-throated sparrows, and ground doves waited for the predator to leave. These standoffs would go on for an hour or more before the hawk flew away swiftly, swooping low over the garden, in search of better hunting.

One morning, while I used binoculars to study facial markings on one of the merlins, a male ruby-throated hummingbird, its brilliant red throat flashing in the sunlight, flew into my field of view from the left. It flew at the merlin, its needlelike beak thrust forward like a sword, stopping and hovering only a few feet from the hawk. Then it flew backward a few feet before launching another forward assault.

The tiny hummingbird repeated this threatening attack for several minutes, the merlin barely acknowledging its presence, its feathers only slightly ruffled. Having made its point, the hummingbird eventually left, followed some minutes later by the annoyed hawk. The garden returned to its normal bustling activity.

Hawk and hummingbird, together in a drama many people never witness, a scene I had never seen in 60 years, at least 45 of them spent watching birds. We feed sugar water to the hummingbirds every summer and know that somewhere in the garden there is a small cup-shaped nest constructed of lichens and spider silk.

But it never occurred to me that one of these tiny birds, weighing at most 3 grams and described by Sy Montgomery in her fascinating new book, “Birdology,” as “less flesh than fairies … little more than bubbles fringed with iridescent feathers — air wrapped in light,” would defend its territory by threatening a bird 50 times its size, a predator swift enough to catch its prey on the wing.

“Yes, they are made of air,” Montgomery quotes a hummingbird specialist, “air and a humongous heart.” There are documented reports of hummingbirds trying to stab each other’s eyes out with their bills as they defend territory.

In the other corner, the merlin. A bird of prey, exclusively predatory, described by Montgomery as a tiger of the air. “People do not have to hunt,” she writes, “but hawks do, and these words name the unspoken rules by which hawks everywhere live their innocent, incandescent, wild lives: Hunt hard. Kill swiftly. Waste nothing. Offer no apologies.”

It was a good week in the garden. I read most of “Birdology” there, gaining new insight on chickens, pigeons, crows, parrots, cassowaries, falcons and hummingbirds, sitting close enough to the peach tree where the hummingbird feeders hang to hear the droning of their wings when they came to feed, and close enough to the old spruce snag to see the merlins come and go.

I know the knowledge and joy an old, dead spruce left standing in the garden can bring.

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