There's a Very Good Reason She put a Hummingbird in the Freezer

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Oak Harbor, WA — It wasn’t that she meant to hide Christmas presents from herself or anyone else but we all knew that, once the gifts were opened, we should check behind grandma’s couch and in the end tables.  To our thrill, we’d often find more wrapped presents and round #2 of opening gifts would ensue. It was like an encore where the curtains close and there’s a mess of wrapping and tissue paper everywhere.  The audience heaves a collective sigh of Wasn’t that a great Christmas? -- and then the band comes back out and fires up your favorite song.

This particular grandma — my Dad’s mom — loved giving gifts.  I can’t say that Christmas was her favorite holiday, per se, but it was one she planned for all year...along with any other day she could make into a celebration.  Oh, you’re spending the night because your parents are out of town?  Well, I think there’s something special under your plate…and we’d find a sticker.  If the church bulletin underwent a redesign, I could expect to find one in my mailbox with a typed note about how she’d thought I’d enjoy seeing it firsthand.  She loved picnics and desserts and having people over for dinner who didn’t have family of their own nearby. She kept in touch through letters and we still bring out her cross-stitched tree ornaments every year.  And then there were the hummingbirds.

This time of year, you can peek into the hedgerows, some of which are historic and protected on Whidbey Island where many of us on my dad’s side were raised.  Along the sides of roads and driveways, you’re allowed to trim the bushes to preserve the right-of-way but you can never cut one down all the way. They are vital habitat and cover for local wildlife: rabbits, voles, small birds.  Of course, we didn’t know all this growing up -- it was an island where everyone either burned their trash or brought it to the dump. On the other hand, we all knew how and what to the compost. Many of us were well into elementary school before recycling came to the island.  Then we’d walk the roads picking up cans to make a few bucks. I’m not sure when the official conservation and ecology movement kicked in here -- probably when we realized the salmon populations were declining, and probably later than we should have. Fortunately, the hedgerows survived and became protected, these lateral thickets of Nootka rose, serviceberry and Oregon grape, to name a few.

This time of year, when you peek into the hedgerows, you can see inside a world that is hidden the rest of the year.  You might notice a travel coffee mug that fell off the roof of someone’s car. Maybe a horse brush that bounced off someone’s tailgate or a traffic cone a county worker forgot to pick up after chip-sealing the road.  And, if the hedgerow is particularly robust, maybe you’ll spot a little abandoned nest of a bird family, now raised, grown and gone. And maybe, just maybe if the hedge is high enough and you have very good eyesight, you’ll spot a nest that’s smaller than the others, packed down tight enough to fit inside the cup of your hand and covered in moss or lichen.  This would be the nest of a hummingbird.

To my grandma, it was important to celebrate nature, to be absolutely curious and collect it around you.  While our parents would only let us take a certain number of shells up from the beach, grandma would let us take more as long as the inhabitants were no longer using them.  She had a particular fondness for birds, especially hummingbirds. And she always had tic-tacs on hand so -- I don’t know where she learned this -- one time when she found a hummingbird nest abandoned after the winter, she snipped it out of the hedge to show us.  To demonstrate that hummingbird eggs were only the size of tic-tacs, she placed two at the bottom of the nest. I can still see them in the little tamped-down cup. She was delighted -- and interestingly enough, hummingbirds in many cultures represent joy.

When I walk by hedgerows this time of year, I check them for nests.  Once I even put a nest I found into my tree for solstice. I inherited my grandma’s love for these kinds of things.  She didn’t have fancy ecology classes. I’m not even sure if natural science was a subject when she was alive. She learned from being a curious person, a reader and, in her case, a #1 fan of God’s good creation.  She learned because it made her happy to share beauty.

Occasionally, my grandma used to find dead hummingbirds on her walks.  I’m guessing that they were hit by cars but she would save them to show us.  I imagine my grandma carrying the tiny body with its delicate beak back to her house probably wrapped in a tissue.  It would fit inside a necklace box which she would carefully place in the freezer to show us later. Always the saver and set-asider of good things, the things she thought would delight us.

When my grandma died, we found at least one hummingbird in her freezer.  She had moved closer to the beach so I’m not sure if the bird was transferred from the old house or if one of her walks had taken her back along a hedgerow again.  I haven’t found a hummingbird nest yet. They’re hard to spot. But the point is to keep looking, just like you look for extra Christmas presents when the first round is done.

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