My cousin Lee has loaned me a wonderful book called Fastest Things on Wings by Terry Masear. It’s a memoir of Masear’s early days as a hummingbird rehab specialist–how she fell into it, stuck with it through the nadir days when she found out she wasn’t a healing goddess who could save every bird, and how she reached a level where she discovered things about hummingbirds we could only have guessed at–and are still astounded by.
Masear is also a PhD. in English and teaches at UCLA as an ESL specialist. Her tale bounces among teaching English, recovering from devastating injury and illness, and watching humans imprint their own life traumas on hummingbird fledglings. In turn every human learns life lessons from the birds themselves. She does not pull punches in her expressive writing; she goes for the heart of a life episode, and she will make you laugh and cry.
There is something about hummingbirds. People who grew up where hummers do not exist will swear they watched them as children, hardened ex-Marines will weep over an injured bird, and self-righteous adults will insist they know what is best for a fledgling, eventually bringing their starving victim to the rehabbers in hopes of an eleventh hour save. Masear builds on the triumphs and tragedies of her rehab teachers, building bird ICUs, rehab cages, fledgling first attempt areas, and finally aviaries where her charges undergo their last tests before she returns them to the wild. She introduces us to shy birds, bullies, natural mentors, and indomitable survivors.
You will learn why you cannot, cannot give a hummingbird an ant–it will kill the bird. You can’t feed them brown sugar (or even so-called natural sugar, with a higher molasses content.) The molasses will slowly glue their mandibles together. The babies must have protein or they will starve–sugar water is not enough. It’s illegal to keep a hummingbird and you’ll probably inadvertently kill it if you do.
But you’ll also learn that if you can get that fledgling safely back into its nest, the mother will return to care for her young. I had no idea that after they hatch, a mother hummer does *not* feed her young every 30 minutes for the first couple of days–because they are still feeding off the remains of the yolk sac. She’s a good mother because she is not force-feeding them. Only after the sac is gone does she return every 30 minutes like clockwork, feeding her voracious twins. I also suspected but didn’t know that a photo-flash is life-endangering. Fledglings will toss themselves out of the nest in terror, and a mother may not return if you startle her with a camera flash.
I didn’t know that if you hang a hummingbird feeder too close to a hummingbird nest, the mother might kill birds approaching the feeder.
Read the book. Be charmed, be moved, be educated and enraptured by the toughest little birds on earth. And be grateful to the unsung heroes of the rehab movement–the people who save the tiniest ones of all.
Hummingbirds do carry messages between heaven and earth. Just not the ones you expected.
Picture Credit: By Tz’unun – Feeding station at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon. Previously published: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150858468483349&set=a.380504123348.162465.238026848348&type=3&theater, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19389436