There are birds, and then there’s Noodle

My new project is to get to know my garden’s avian regulars as individuals.

Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters/File
A hummingbird, perhaps a sapphire-vented puffleg, in El Paraiso de los Colibries Sanctuary near Cali, Colombia.

I always imagined I’d be a good birder one day. I’d have a life species list in the triple digits and the confidence to level a finger in the direction of a “chip” note in the brush and slap an ID on it. But it was not to be. I’m no good at it. I finally had to acknowledge this the day I spent trailing a real birder. Toward evening, a beautiful song erupted from the woods. “Oh! What’s that one?” I asked. She looked at me with a mixture of unbelief and fatigue and emitted, “That’s still a cardinal.”

Nevertheless, after decades, I’ve gotten pretty good at the 20 or so regular bird visitors to my garden. And now I have a new aspiration. I want to be able to tell individual birds apart. You know, my personal birds.

I know it’s possible because my friend Julie knows all her birds by name, and their hat sizes, and whether they’re drop-in types or she should call first, and everything. So when you ask her about a particular bird, she might haul out a species name; but she might also say, “Oh, that’s Fred.” Fred looks a little different, or acts a little different. Fred has that arrogant cant to his shoulder and a quelling eye. She knows. It’s all a matter of observation.

My new project is showing promise. In the small birdscape outside my window, I’m noticing individuals. I have a female house finch in residence who has cowlicks over both ears. So there’s one. I have a chickadee with a bum foot. There’s two.

I thought my ability to distinguish our local hummingbirds would be confined to telling the females from the males, which is easy, because their outfits are different. But there’s way more going on than that. I get a good look because, like many people, I put out a nectar feeder. That’s mainly for my benefit, to draw them close. Hummingbirds get plenty of juice from my flowers. But they also eat insects and spiders. Some more than others.

The hummingbird that has dominated our feeder – Hannibal Nectar – is one rotund, spider-filled little ball of irascibility. He has really packed on the grams. Fry up three of him and perch them on a bed of rice, and you’ve got yourself an entree.

But then there’s Noodle. She squeaks in on the feeder any time she senses Hannibal isn’t looking. She has the girth of a pencil. She couldn’t challenge Hannibal if she had brass knucklets, 10 friends, and started last week. I’m accustomed to the proper size of an Anna’s hummingbird, and there’s quite a range, but I’m frankly worried about both of these. Soon Hannibal won’t be able to lift off without dropping like a plumb bob, and Noodle could disappear in a shag carpet.

Besides that, they act different. Noodle always picks the port closest to the house so she can look out for Hannibal. She looks right, left, up, down, and only then lowers in the hose and hoovers out everything she can. Hannibal comes way more often and drinks less at a time, because he knows he’s the boss. He picks any port he wants and kicks back as if he’s in a recliner. But he’s also the only hummingbird I’ve seen that makes a regular habit of checking out the nectar feeder from underneath. I know what he’s doing: There might be ants. Basically, he’s scouting for Cheetos in the seat cushions.

Poor Noodle. She’ll be raiding spiderwebs for material for her nest one of these days, and I hope she’s real cozy in there, because that’s one place Hannibal will not be invited. I’d love to bring her a housewarming gift. 

Maybe a nice spider pot pie.

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