The Saga Of Henrietta, The Broad-tail Hummingbird

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Early History

Most good stories start at the beginning and our story of a special broad-tailed hummingbird starts when she was very young and Carol found her almost frozen in a pile of snow in the backyard. She took the little bird and warmed her in her hand and was able to revive her. She must have flown into something because when she was revived she had what appeared to be tremors which she carried her entire long life. That is how we could identify her among all the the other female broad-tails. We put out 3-4 feeders each summer and attract up to approximately  50 birds including Henrietta (our name for her).

Henrietta – First To Arrive, Last To Leave:

We observe the hummingbirds while they are visiting us because the feeders are right outside the window. We generally attract broad-tails, rufus and the black-chinned species. This story is a overview of the characteristics of hummingbirds but especially about Henrietta. We live in Southern Colorado and broad-tails migrate each year to Mexico, Guatemala and some as far as El Salvador. We know that Henrietta made that trip at least 12 years and each year she returned to the exact feeder, exact port on the feeder and was first to arrive. If the feeder was not up she would come get one of us and hover in front of us until we put the feeder out. To me migrating that far and returning to the same feeder that many years accurately is mind boggling.

Henrietta A Perfectly Designed Small Bird:

Henrietta, like most hummingbirds, had excellent sight and could see all the colors we see plus she could process ultraviolet light. Her hearing was acute and we firmly believe she even recognized her given name. When I would walk past the feeder I would tell her I was just passing by and she stayed at her station while the other hummingbirds flew off. Hummingbirds have excellent memories and can remember each flower they visit and when to go back to it for more nectar. The hummingbirds brain is about 4.2% of its body weight (humans about 2%) which allows them to return to the exact same spot year after year. Henrietta was no exception.  

Surviving The Cold:

Here in the mountains it gets cold at night and Henrietta always survived and often was the only one at the feeder until it warmed up. She was one tough girl as can be seen in the photo of her on the shelf below the feeder all fluffed up and toughing it out until the temperature warmed up. Hummingbirds go into torpor when it gets cold and Henrietta stayed in this spot for a long time. Torpor is when they slow their heartbeat and lower their temperature to conserve energy.

Marvels Of Flight:

Hummingbirds have a very high metabolism and require a lot of food to maintain that high level. Henrietta had a heart beat of about 1,260 beats a minute and her wings beat from 70-200 times per second. She could fly forward, backward, hover and perform all kinds of aeronautical stunts.  

In short Henrietta was a dynamic flying marvel and a kaleidoscope of color. We believe the photo of the tiny nest in the tree in our backyard was probably from Henrietta. Henrietta like most female hummingbirds build small nests and lay about two eggs each year. As we look back we figure that most of the broad-tails we have at the feeders probably came from Henrietta.

Embrace Wildlife – Don’t Try To Destroy It:

We assume that Henrietta liked it here because as stated earlier she was the first to arrive and the last to leave each year. She became over the years like a member of our family and often acted like she was a family member. In her 11th or 12th year here she chose to die and it was obvious to us that she chose the time and place. Hummingbirds are estimated to live 3-5 years and Henrietta just kept going on and on for 11-12..

Henrietta’s Final Moments:

We noticed that she was getting lethargic and we became concerned for her because we had become so attached to her. One day she flew up on the feeder and locked her feet around the perch and sat right there. After a while when she hadn’t moved I went out to check on her. She was alive and blinking her eyes but she was not going to move. Other hummingbirds would perch next to her and look at her (probably her offspring) but she sat right there and died in her favorite spot. I stayed with her and calmly talked to her mostly telling her how much we would miss her.

Burial And Saying Goodbye With Dignity:

When I was sure she had died I waited a while longer and gently removed her from the perch and placed her in a special box that I had made. It was a heart shaped box made of cherry wood from a tree I had cut down and milled out. She had a special place where she hung out by the basement door and we buried her there. Some will contend that we were over the top with what we did for her burial but she had been with us for 12 years and as I mentioned she was like part of the family. We could recognize her out of a group of broad-tails and she recognized and trusted us. It was the very least we could do.

Learning From Wildlife Life Values:

We have noticed and observed while living here the last 20 years that birds and animals are sometimes similar looking but each is unique in their individual way. We have learned so much from them and in many cases earned their trust. They are for the most part good neighbors.  If one only takes the time to observe the birds and animals closely there is a plethora of information that can be gained and applied to our lives. So that is the saga of Henrietta and the time she spent with us.

References: – Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Defenders of Wildlife – Wikipedia

Bruce and Carol live in the mountains with their three German Shepherd Dogs in a small cabin they heat with a wood stove. They live with wild animals both large and small and enjoy a mutual and respectful relationship with them. You can learn more by going to their blog site

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