Well at last I get to write a ‘Hmmm’ about hummingbirds again! I’m on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina visiting my daughter. The other day I went out into the wilderness of a huge forest preserve that literally bubbled with life. Massive butterflies floating through the tree tops, a praying mantis fighting off a cardinal and a pair of young ‘gators slipping into an underwater tangle of tree roots as I approached. It was hot and sticky too. Every time I used my binoculars I had to wipe the lenses free of condensation immediately.
At first the birdlife was hard to find. High up in the massive trees – lichen festooned live oaks, stone pines and a host of other tree species that I am quite unable to identify. It got easier when I reached Joe’s Pool and an adjacent flower meadow. Brightly coloured eastern bluebirds flitted from perch to perch. Doves and warblers flocked from field to fence posts and a serpentine anhinga fished in the pool.
My excitement mounted when I turned a corner to find a couple of largish bushes festooned with a vine bearing the most lovely orangey-red trumpet shaped flowers. Just right for hummingbirds I thought and then there they were, two of them buzzing round the bush nearest me. Fancifully it seemed to me that they were sword fighting with their long beaks and pretty soon one drove the other away before returning briefly to a well shaded perch. It was a female ruby-throated hummingbird and she looked quite unspectacular in the shade. That all changed when, having paused to adjust her plumage, she shot out her long, nectar sucking tongue and zipped round a selection of her flowers to harvest the nectar.
I watched her for an hour or so. She fought off all comers. Bees and butterflies were tolerated but woe betide any errant competitors. She was straight out there to challenge them voicing her rebuke and totally ready for the fray. Once or twice the battlers disappeared into the forest proper, but within a minute or two she was back on her shaded perch. A quick preen, a lick of the lips (as it were) and then a visit to the flowers and I would suck in my breath as her iridescent back feathers spangled like emeralds in the sunshine.
As I think about her now, her two bushes with their flowering vine are not unlike a business. She takes care of her property, defends it from rivals and in return she creams off a profit of sweet, energy giving nectar. Yes, a business is rather like a hummingbird tree – an exemplar of survival and self interest. And yet the analogy goes further – unwittingly the hummingbird is fertilizing the vine for future generations just as a good business provides utility for others. As for hummingbirds so for men: I sense Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work.