Confined to our homes for long weeks with eyes glued to our screens, we thrill to the images of wild animals returning to the spaces suddenly devoid of humans and all our busyness. We are drawn to the unexpected otherness of wildness here in our cities and suburbs, to the very animalness of animals we know exist but don’t usually see. And while we should of course be struck not only by the unexpected sights and also moved by nature’s beauty, a peek out our windows every and any day – yes, the pre-and also someday post-corona days – provides equally remarkable opportunities if only we pause to watch.
Wildlife is always with us, thankfully, despite increasing habitat destruction and species extinction. And wildlife leaves its big mark on our individual minds and on collective cultures. Take, for example, the hummingbird. To be accurate, there is of course no single hummingbird. Rather, there are 300-plus species of hummingbirds, from Cuba’s Helena which is the smallest bird on Earth (around 2¼ inches in length, half of which is tail and beak) to Chile’s Giant Hummingbird (9 inches long with a wingspan to match). That wide distribution allows for an interesting range of perspectives.
For the various Pueblo People of the American Southwest, hummingbirds intervene on the behalf of the Hopi to convince the gods to bring rain, while hummingbirds serve as symbols of warriors’ skill and ferocity for the neighboring Zuni. The Mayans (today’s southern Mexico through much of northern Central America) believed that the hummingbird was made out of the leftover feathers after the gods finished creating all the other birds, an odds-and-ends collage coming only after the rest of creation. The Cherokees, the original residents of the southeast (Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee) taught that the hummingbird was a healer, responsible for bringing tobacco which was powerful medicine. The condor was king of the skies for the Inca of the Andes, but it was the hummingbird who served as intermediary between people and the heavens. Rainmaker, fierce warrior, healer, an afterthought made of leftovers, or an exalted messenger to the gods: that’s a lot of roles, especially for a little bird who is with us here in the Bay Area, year ’round, and often largely unnoticed.