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VOL. 43 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 4, 2019

Nature’s table: Sunday dinner can be murder in wild

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Sometimes story ideas come from strange places, often from the incongruous rabbit holes we descend led by the hand of restless curiosity. This one starts with a gruesome crime scene.

A decapitated body was found beneath a crepe myrtle bush. The victim? A hummingbird. Most likely suspect? A praying mantis. And, we’re off.

Who knew praying mantises can kill and suck the brains out of birds? They usually lurk in flowering bushes but also hang out on hummingbird feeders, waiting to strike with their nasty front claws. Praying hands? Right. More like instruments of death.

That led me down the hummingbird path to learn more. I already had a well-stoked love affair with the little creatures that fly with such frenetic precision, and I have long delighted in feeding them from a red disk that hangs next to the window where I write.

With my mind spinning about word choice, I worried that I really shouldn’t call it murder since, in the natural world, where things eat other things, it’s simply a matter of course. You know, “ingonyama nengw’ enamabala”* and all that.

On a side note, I learned that bad pruning is called “crepe murder.” See what I mean about rabbit holes?

What I settled on, though, was this notion of feeding. Just as eating can be fraught with psychological overlays of guilt and comfort, so too is the world of feeding.

Feeding should always come from a place of love, from the shopping for ingredients to the cooking and presentation. I think it does, in most cases, but not always.

There was that time when, during a trip to Roswell, Georgia, my new grandmother-in-law threatened to pour hot chipped beef on my hands as I tried to decline the third serving. My great uncle served my dad so much spiced round that the skinny boy from North Wisconsin excused himself to throw up in the bathroom.

Sometimes the horn of plenty is a vehicle for a battle of wills.

In another realm, we too often conflate love and feeding with our pets, creating bloated furry Weebles who have no say in the matter since they are sorely lacking in portion controls.

That reminded me of my three spinster great aunts who lived together and had a succession of dachshunds, each named Fudge Pie. They were all, in turn, tragically fed to the point of fatal spinal injuries. They all died young and hating men.

I try to think about Fudge Pie et al every time I put food in my dog’s bowl or toss him a scrap of steak, as I check to make sure I can easily feel his ribs.

Feeding domestic animals and feeding wild animals, though, are two different things with different sets of problems.

In reading about hummingbirds, a thread about proper feeding caught my attention because we are in prime feeding time as they migrate to their Mexican beachfront condos for the winter. While feeding some wild animals can create a relationship of dependence, like when bears choose garbage cans instead of wild berries, I learned it’s OK to keep feeding hummingbirds well into the fall and early winter.

Some concerned birders fear the hummingbirds might become Nashville-bound and get caught in a hard freeze and die here, hooked on easy access to sugar water in that backyard feeder.

No, say the experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They encourage us to continue feeding until the last bird is seen. Any source of fuel for their grueling journey is lagniappe. Their internal calendars will tell them when to go, even if they decide to linger a little longer than expected.

Tracking studies by Theodore Zenzal of the University of Southern Mississippi show late migrators are often the young and small hummingbirds who could use the extra late-season boost.

Look out the window and it doesn’t take a biologist to figure out that proper care and feeding for wild birds is even more important as we slip into the deeper stages of drought.

Fewer flowers bloom, which means fewer food sources are available. Both food and hydration for all birds can help them skirt the survival sweepstakes during this period of unprecedented heat and dryness at this time of year.

Reading the experts’ feeding guides, I also was reminded that I have to curb my own tendency of ‘love=more’ when making liquid food for hummingbirds. Authoritative sources agree that a 1:4 ratio of sugar to water is more than ample, not the 1:2 ratio I had been using.

So, as the calendar flips to October, I’m keeping my hummingbird feeder filled with fresh sugar water. I’m no longer worried about the little visitors becoming codependent. I want them well-fed and healthy enough to make that roughly 2,600-mile round-trip journey.

Just as there’s great pleasure in serving a loved one a well-prepared meal, it can be equally rewarding to watch the hummingbirds, their ruby throat feathers glistening when the light bounces at just the right angle.

In case you’re wondering, should I find a praying mantis walking down the chain to the feeder, I will fight the urge to observe and document his assassination attempt (woops, there I go again), I mean, his hunting trip, and I will swiftly intervene in his relocation. Not on my watch.

*Circle of Life

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at jim@culinarity.com

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