January 31, 2008
It had been going on for several weeks before I finally mustered up the courage to tell my husband about it. We were sitting on our front porch eating breakfast, enjoying the tranquility of a beautiful spring morning.
“Honey, I think I’m being stalked,” I said, breaking the serenity.
He looked at me, not certain if he should be concerned or amused.
“Are you kidding me or what?”
My answer came about 30 seconds later when the predator came into sight.
A tiny hummingbird flitted over my head, darting back and forth near my shoulders.
“I’m totally serious,” I said, tilting my head toward the hummer to emphasize the gravity of the situation.
“Maybe we should call 911, or better yet, you could dress up as a hawk and give it a real scare,” he said, clearly not taking my plight seriously.
I am not an alarmist but I knew something significant was going on. I couldn’t be on my porch for more than a minute without the hummer hovering overhead. I began to wonder: Is this a visitor from the “other side”— perhaps my grandmother or aunt wanting to tell me something? Should I do anything about it?
I became obsessed, consulting friends and reading books about the meaning of the hummingbird. I learned that it is the tiniest of all birds and is the only creature that can stop dead while traveling at full speed. It can hover or fly forward, backward, up, or down, its wings moving in the configuration of an eight, the sign for infinity.
In many traditional cultures of the Western world, the hummingbird has powerful religious and spiritual significance. In the high Andes of South America, it is a symbol of resurrection. Hopi and Zuni legends tell of hummingbirds’ intervening on behalf of humans, convincing the gods to bring rain. Other mystical traditions hold that it represents the past and the future and opens up the heart’s center, bringing joy, happiness, and love into the world. One thing was certain: Any way I looked at it, having a hummer on my front porch was a good thing.
But one morning everything changed. As I was drinking my coffee, I noticed something that resembled half of a walnut shell on a branch of the potted fichus tree next to our front door. There, camouflaged amidst the leaves, was the tiniest, most compact nest I have ever seen. Suddenly I understood. My hummer was not a stalker; she was a lovely little mother protecting her eggs. I was the predator!
The magic and the miracle of having a hummingbird nest on my porch overwhelmed me. I stopped several times each day to watch her — a bird whose wings normally flap 50 times per second — sit perfectly still atop her nest. I marveled at the complexity of the nest, made of moss, fiber, and plant down, and how smart she was to choose a shaded place on my porch. I witnessed her commitment to her eggs and honored her maternal instincts.
One evening I went out on the porch and turned on the front light. My hummer became frantic, flying around in circles, bumping into the ceiling, and hitting up against the window. I raced to turn off the light and realized that not only had I nearly scared her to death but had disturbed the night-time cycle of her nesting. I felt terrible and apologized profusely to her as my husband shook his head and began paging through the yellow pages, searching for mental health care providers.
I have always loved animals and have been accused of favoring my dog over my teenage children at times. But not until the hummer made her nest on my porch, have I experienced such compassion for them.
The Jewish commandment to treat animals with compassion is articulated on numerous occasions throughout the Torah and the Talmud. In Deuteronomy, we are commanded not to work on the Sabbath and we must not require our animals to do so. We are told how to avoid causing suffering (Tza’ar ba’alei haim) by not muzzling an animal when it is working so that it can eat when it needs to, or plowing with an ox and mule together because their unequal size and strength will cause them both to suffer. My personal favorite is the prohibition of taking baby birds from the nest while the mother is present because of the pain that she would experience. How amazing to think that more than 2,500 years ago, our Jewish ancestors were concerned with protecting the feelings of animals.
There is an exception to the prohibition of causing pain to animals, however. Jewish tradition permits the use of animals for the purpose of benefiting mankind — in such areas as medical research, for example, where the intention is to use animals in furtherance of finding a life-saving cure or other treatment that would benefit humanity.
I read that hummingbirds do not re-use the same nest, but return to the same location to build a new nest, often on top of the old one. I take this as a sign that my home has been blessed with the joy and wonder of this tiny creature and a reminder that in all of life, we are commanded to act with compassion and tenderness, not only to each other but to the animal kingdom as well.