Life at 400 Heartbeats Per Minute
Paul Reddish (writer-director); David Attenborough (narrator), "Hummingbirds: Jewelled Messengers" (2012)
When I was a Cub Scout with no interest in knot tying (or, as it turned out, the Boy Scouts), I mollified my den mother by pursuing a merit badge in birdwatching. And though I proved too busy, clumsy, and impatient to ever be much good at what is now called birding (because it sounds less, I don’t know, passive??), I did score a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds and still pack binoculars and a bird book when we head off to Connecticut or—thank you, Herbert A. Raffaele—Puerto Rico. I always try to make time for the World of Birds at the Bronx Zoo, and one of the few Twitter accounts I follow is Jocelyn Anderson Photography, whose proprietor fills one hand with nuts and seeds and films the birds who perch there to select a treat. Birds are beautiful. Birds are unpredictable. And as superbirder Jonathan Franzen has put it, birds are “our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding. They’re the most vivid and widespread representatives of Earth as it was before people arrived on it.”
All that goes double for how reverently I’ve regarded hummingbirds ever since the late ‘60s, when I first visited the Hummingbird House now augmented but not replaced by a less restricted hummingbird habitat at the magnificent San Diego Zoo. But the Hummingbird House was also where my wife and I replighted our troth after a near breakup in the eighth year of our relationship. As I described it in Going Into the City: “We sat in awed silence, watching the tiny creatures waft intently from feeder to feeder, always hungry, always needing more. I told Carola I was just like them—I always needed more. She told me she was the same. We promised to try our best to give it.”
So when Carola told me Amazon Prime was streaming a documentary directed by Paul Reddish called Hummingbirds: Jewelled Messengers, we watched it that Saturday and then watched it again with our daughter Sunday—it’s enchanting for almost every one of its 54 minutes. The film’s calmly authoritative voice is that of longtime BBC 2 executive Sir David Attenborough, an unflinching progressive whose passion for the natural history documentaries he narrated turned him early into a stalwart environmentalist. Attenborough was 86 in 2012, the year he took on Hummingbirds. In 2021, at 95, he addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference he’d had a hand in organizing. No wonder he sounds so engaged and so credible.
There are 360 species of hummingbird, all save an outlier or two native to the western hemisphere. The earliest are believed to have emerged 50 million years ago, with a common ancestor of extant species dated back a mere 22 million years. Although the film was shot mainly in the highlands of Brazil, hummingbirds are found all over the tropics and to a lesser extent in milder climes as well. They live entirely on the nectar calories of the flowers they evolved to pollinate augmented by insects for protein. They have the highest metabolism of any animal, which they’d better, because their wings beat—unbelievably, I know—between 12 and 80 times a second, so fast that only advances in high-speed photography enable us to film them in the wild. Their hearts beat 400 times a minute, 1200 in full flight. They hover a lot. Sometimes they fly backwards. To rest when their protein providers retire for the night, they go into a partial hibernation called torpor.
There’s more crammed into the film’s minutes. Hummingbird mating rituals, for instance, involve not the usual plumage contests but competitive diving and nectar accrual exhibitions. There are species with surreally long beaks designed to gather nectar from surreally narrow, deep blossoms. And for a touch of the cloddish comic relief only homo sapiens can provide, a few minutes toward the end is set in the Gulf of Mexico town of Rockport, Texas, situated directly in the path of the hummingbirds’ annual 800-mile flight over open water to the Yucatan, where every September 5000 human beings, some wearing silly-looking feeder hats designed to lure birds to perch and eat as they strive to increase their body fat the 50 percent they need to survive their airborne trek.
We humans think of bird flight as freedom, of life relieved of the bother of gravitational pull. We also think of birds that are both small and beautiful as cute. I’m partial to both these concepts. I love to lie on my back in a field near a barn as swallows flit and soar about at dusk, and watching a hummingbird feed at a friend’s country or suburban place is always a treat. But there’s nothing remotely cute about the need to live minute to minute the way hummingbirds are compelled to—heroic is more like it. And where gravity is an impediment that even swallows need to strategize around, hummingbirds deploy unimaginable skills and calories just to stay in the air and hence stay alive. They and their ancestors on our tiny lump of universe have been performing these miracles for 20 and indeed 50 million years, for all practical purposes infinitely longer than our meddling species has been throwing its weight around. As I watched a few of them staying alive in those Brazilian highlands, I thought more than once of the loathsome Trumpkin Jair Bolsonaro, who as you read is plotting to overturn his own likely 2022 electoral defeat so he can continue to reign as Brazil’s president and destroy the Amazon rain forest humans worldwide are counting on to consume our planet’s strangling oversupply of carbon dioxide. Against Bolsonaro the hummingbirds are powerless. In theory, we’re not. By all means seek out Hummingbirds: Jeweled Messengers. But then think about what their fundamental message is.