Frightful Hummingbirds

My day job, in part, entails educating people on the ways of wildlife in urban and suburban areas. Variety is king when it comes to how people feel about certain species. For example squirrels; to some cute little buddies with interesting antics yet to others, V.E.R.M.I.N. Jays and crows also have split alliances. Chickadees: everyone loves Chickadees just like everyone LOVES hummingbirds, well almost everyone…except a woman I met recently.

Our conversation started the way most feed-the-hummers conversations start: what do they eat, what feeders are best, red dye or no red dye (a big NO by the way as some dyes are now known to harm birds). When the dialogue turned to the best location for a feeder, my customer showed her true colors. Exclaiming, “NOT near the house!” Puzzled, I paused with my spiel and she continued as if hummingbirds were akin to zombies, “I’m really afraid of hummingbirds and do NOT want them anywhere near me.” Sure they are terrorising little bastards if you’re another hummingbird but hummer-phobia was new to me. Having heard hundreds of people declare their undying affection for the flying jewels, I was most surprised. Although, I now know that Ornithophobia, fear of birds, exists for many people.

BOO! photo by Taylor McDowell

I didn’t get to delve deeper into why the fear and why attract them if that fear is so strong but, my brain’s been stuck mulling over the power of fear, its crippling abilities, and our amazing ability to ignore our fears.

Her situation is not unusual. Whether intrinsic phobias or rational and experienced-based anxiety, people face their fears everyday. We ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to spit in the face of our bridge phobias, climb mountains to face our fear of heights, and learn to swim to face our fear of drowning. I recently read about a skydiver whose shute failed to open. He lived through the ordeal and has no plans to stop skydiving.  Rather than developing a phobia of skydiving he’s attributed to saying, “I can’t imagine not doing it.” Despite feedback to the contrary, falling out of a perfectly good airplane is still part of his identity.

I understand that. After a car-induced cycling accident sent me to the hospital I had no plans to stop cycling. The trauma of my accident was great enough to cause lots of pain and discomfort and wipe out any memory I have of both the bike ride and the ambulance ride.  However, shortly after the accident and long before my broken bones had healed, I was back on the bike. To my dismay, for every moment of every ride, abject fear dominated my experience. Yet, despite that, I had to keep riding. My desire was stronger than my fear. Perhaps explained away by having a couple of decades worth of bicycling endorphins and enjoyment locked away in my cells. Over time I was able to reduce my terror (thanks to a great therapist) and once again enjoy bicycling. Only occasionally something triggers that fear but it’s fleeting and I’m not about to stop pedaling.  So I understand the sky diver’s attitude.

But, why face such an innate phobic fear by doing something that has never provided positive stimulus? What mechanism in our caveman psyche allows us to hit the “override” button? Somewhere in our DNA is there a code implanted to help us face the unknown? Do my neurons know that beyond the anxiety, big rewards await? Am I able to still enjoy cycling for the same reason that Neolithic man developed tools to  hunt large prey? If I just get a little closer to that scary woolly mammoth, will I have a better, more lethal shot with this new spear tip I just made? If my customer feeds the terrifying hummingbirds will there be a reward: beyond current comprehension but out there none the less? If necessity is the mother of invention is conquering fear the father of necessity?  

Certainly, in my universe cycling is a necessity. It’s like breathing. I do it because I have  to do it. Love, passion, pleasure  or fear, all of the emotional components all seem secondary. I ride because I can’t imagine not riding. Again, it’s a necessity. Fear or not the task must be completed.

Fear or not the hummingbirds must be fed.


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