The droppings were the first clue. But a lot of birds fly in and out of the plant-lined walkway to my front door, so I just assumed they were typical avian calling cards, although I have had some more interesting visitors.
A couple months ago, I saw a roadrunner race-walking across the driveway. And when I first moved here in the autumn, I had a watchbat; every night for a couple weeks, when I came home, it would zoom back and forth from the front gate to the front door in a frenzied flight I chose to interpret as "Welcome home, how was your day?"
Then, last week, gazing at the overgrowth and wondering if I should trim the top of the schefflera, which was bending against the stucco overhead, I spied the source of the bird-doo on the sidewalk -- a nest the size of a golf ball was tucked into the crotch of a tall branch. Perched imperiously atop the wad of plant fibers and down was what I believe is a Costa's hummingbird. Several species of these dinky birds are found in this part of the desert, and the females of two of them -- Costa's and Anna's -- look quite similar. It's very difficult to know which is which without closer inspection, which not only would be rude, but possibly risky: Hummingbirds are small, but they're mighty, and they're not known for having a sweet temperament.
Still, my little incubator is welcome to start her family here as long as I'm allowed to watch.
I haven't confirmed that the diminutive nest contains the two miniature eggs that compose the standard clutch for a hummingbird, although maybe one day when mama isn't sitting pretty I'll sneak a peek. Shouldn't be difficult -- she's gone a lot (although never for long), presumably in search of nutrition.
Hummingbirds burn calories like a '70 Caddy DeVille burns gas. Hovering around a flower, they flap their wings 50 or more times per second. Drinking from the nectar trough, they can lick 13 times per second. In the space of a minute, their hearts can beat 1,260 times, and they draw 250 breaths. They burn 10 times the energy of a marathon runner, and they're not racing -- they're just existing.
They're remarkably fuel-efficient machines because they don't have to process calories the way humans do -- their muscles burn the sugar they just ate without first converting it into fat.
Although they're designed for sucking nectar from flowers, hummers also eat protein, especially during breeding season. They eat small spiders and bugs, and are known to take them in flight and snatch them right out of webs. When you're that small, you better be bold. A nesting female can snag a couple thousand insects a day, which also speaks to her agility -- hummers are the only birds that can fly backward.
I'm not sure how long mama's been nesting on my schefflera, but I needn't wait long to see the results -- hummingbirds incubate their eggs for 15 to 18 days. The kids hang around maybe three weeks before they're off and flying somewhere else. Like everything else about these speedsters, they grow up so fast.
Too bad I don't have a basement.
Photos: Ellen Alperstein