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Monday, April 22, 2013

We conserve only what we love

by Sharon McInnes

This year, for the first time, a hummingbird sipped nectar from the feeder outside our kitchen window all year long. It was, of course, an Anna’s.

Anna's Hummingbird
The rufous hummers have returned too. Such abundance! These hardy 3 gram hummingbirds have the longest migratory journey of the world’s 300+ species of hummingbirds - close to 6000 kilometres from Mexico and Central America. 

Hungry Rufous Hummers

Now they're here, delighting us with their beauty and speed and remarkable ability to fly backwards, upside down, and hover in place like tiny magical helicopters. The territorial squabbling to stake out their place at the feeders, like impatient planes waiting to land at a busy airport, is in full swing. Luckily, they rarely damage their bills in these territorial battles because their instincts tell them to protect them. 

Once in a while someone asks me if it wouldn’t be better to let hummingbirds – or any birds, for that matter - get their food naturally, from native flowers and plants. In an undeveloped world, yes, I think it would be better; the hummers would not need artificial feeders to help them refuel after their gruelling migratory journey. But that's not the planet they inhabit. Given all the deforestation and pollution and other acts of violence against the earth humans have already committed, providing supplementary nectar is, in my opinion, the LEAST we can do.

The value of human-supplied nectar lies not only in its ready availability but also in its efficiency for the hummers. In a 2011 Dartmouth University study researchers confirmed that hummingbirds (unlike humans!) feed according to Optimal Foraging Theory. Basically, this means that their intent is to balance the energy spent finding food with its caloric benefit in order to maximize their chances of survival. (In human terms, they wouldn't bother eating sticky buns because the nutritive value isn't worth the time and energy spent to ingest then digest them.) Since the flowers from which hummers eat produce just enough nectar to allow them to be pollinated, the tiny birds have to expend energy flying from flower to flower to find sufficient nectar. Given their high metabolism and energy requirements, there is a point at which a cost-benefit analysis says 'this just ain't worth it'. That's why hummingbirds aim to choose the largest flower patches with the 'sweetest' nectar concentrations.

 There’s another reason, though, why I feed the birds in my backyard. It has to do with something the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum once said: 
"In the end, we will conserve only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught."
When I lived in the city (most of my adult life) I paid absolutely no attention to wild birds. It was only after moving to the island, and noticing them in the garden, then observing them up close, in my own backyard, day after day, that I became curious, started seeking information (almost obsessively) about which bird was which, and about why they behave the way they do, and about the complex web of interrelationships that get played out within each species’ habitat. Then, because I wanted to make sure they came back to my yard and brought their friends, I started feeding them and providing fresh water and choosing garden plants according to their attractiveness to birds. Over time - to use Dioum’s brave word - I came to love them. And loving them fired a commitment to do whatever I can to protect their habitat, including writing about the problems they face because of “us”. (See, for example: And often my intention is simply to try to turn the reader on to birds, to ignite a spark that just might lead him or her to fall in love too. Because "In the end, we will conserve only what we love.   

A version of this article was first published in
The Flying Shingle (
on April 8, 2013

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