JUST HUM­MING ALONG

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Dean Kuipers Kuipers is a writer in Los An­ge­les.

Fastest Things on Wings Res­cu­ing Hum­ming­birds in Hol­ly­wood

Terry Masear

Houghton Mif­flin Har­court: 306 pp., $25

Hum­ming­birds are sa­cred to a lot of peo­ple in Los An­ge­les, hov­er­ing dabs of wild­ness that seem to defy the city’s con­crete and cars like tiny, iri­des­cent he­roes. But how many of us have grasped the true na­ture of our re­la­tion­ship with these slip­pery an­gels — or for that mat­ter, any of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s still-teem­ing ur­ban wildlife?

In her en­dear­ing new book, “Fastest Things on Wings: Res­cu­ing Hum­ming­birds in Hol­ly­wood,” Terry Masear re­veals that these birds are not only gor­geous, smart and jaw-drop­ping mas­ters of flight but also trust­ing souls that bring out the hu­man­ity and love in even the most hard-bit­ten res­i­dents.

Masear’s story be­gins dur­ing a rain­storm in April 2004, when rush­ing out of her West Hol­ly­wood home on the way to teach at UCLA, she no­tices a hum­ming­bird chick dan­gling by one leg from a dam­aged nest. Af­ter de­liv­er­ing it to Jean Roper, a vet­eran L.A. hum­ming­bird re­hab­ber, she of­fers to vol­un­teer. As Masear be­gins pick­ing up stranded chicks and in­jured birds, Roper nurses that first bird back to health and they both marvel at a white spot on his head. Such a mark­ing is rare for an Anna’s hum­ming­bird, with their bright green plumage and scar­let crowns and gor­gets (of­ten mis­taken for ruby-throated, which are not na­tive to L.A.).

Four years later, Masear has be­come a full-time hum­ming­bird re­hab­ber dur­ing the sum­mer, her home given over to scores of birds laid low by tree-trim­ming, wind, cats, mis­in­formed bird fa­nat­ics and all man­ner of ac­ci­dents. One is a badly in­jured bird that has col­lided with a limousine and is nearly dead. As she grad­u­ally cleans off the road grime and tar over a pe­riod of days, she finds the white spot and she and Roper agree it is the same bird, which she named Gabriel.

Gabriel’s back is in­jured and he be­gins a long and iffy re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, which be­comes the book’s some­what thin nar­ra­tive chord. Along the way, the hun­dreds of birds that come and go have lessons for Masear; this is the real joy of “Fastest Things on Wings.” Af­ter los­ing a bird for the first time, she writes:

“But grad­u­ally, along with the height­ened angst cre­ated by help­less hum­ming­birds, came a larger un­der­stand­ing of the na­ture of ex­is­tence. ... Be­cause if one les­son had sunk in over the past few years, it was that no­body wants to watch a hum­ming­bird die. That’s where re­hab­bers come in. We take the pain for ev­ery­body.”

Oh, and there’s so much pain. Masear seems a bit too in­vested in mak­ing sure we un­der­stand that res­cue life can be manic and raw: Be­tween snip­pets about Gabriel and his part­ner in re­hab, Pep­per, we’re over­whelmed as a be­wil­der­ing bliz­zard of other birds blow into her life — scores of sto­ries about species, in­juries and treat­ments, not to men­tion Masear’s masochis­tic sched­ule. We have to wait too long to get back to Gabriel as each new drama pulls us into a new psy­cho­log­i­cal minefield: a mom afraid of her daugh­ter’s can­cer, lonely old folks, en­ti­tled Brent­wood ladies, sob­bing road­ies.

“Peo­ple feel so tightly bound to hum­ming­birds,” Masear writes, “that the birds be­come minia­ture mir­rors. In ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties through­out Los An­ge­les, hum­ming­birds are the poster chil­dren for pri­mal in­no­cence, both theirs and ours. … This is why their deaths, as small and in­signif­i­cant as they may seem, have the power to drive the hard truth of our own mor­tal­ity straight home.”

Pro­voked to tears, Masear turns over and over to Lao Tzu for bits of Taoist wis­dom such as: Just do what needs to be done.

Mostly, what needs to be done is ed­u­cat­ing the public. Mother hum­ming­birds, for ex­am­ple, will not aban­don chicks han­dled by peo­ple. It’s a fed­eral of­fense to keep a hum­ming­bird as a pet. Feed them white sugar wa­ter, not the red­dyed kind (the color is un­nec­es­sary) or brown sugar (it sticks in their crop). Don’t put them on cot­ton tow­els, be­cause it will pull their claws out when you lift them. Masear would have done well to add a one-page break­down of what to do if you find a downed hum­ming­bird, but the best idea is ob­vi­ous: Call a re­hab­ber.

This is a book about birds that is ac­tu­ally a book about love, and Masear does us a fa­vor by risk­ing heart­break ev­ery day. She notes that she can­not work with ravens or crows or mock­ing­birds be­cause they im­print on peo­ple and want to stick around, and then she would have to break the bond to let them be wild. “Some peo­ple are good at this. I am not,” she ac­knowl­edges. “I have too much of what John Keats called neg­a­tive ca­pa­bil­ity as well as a close corol­lary, em­pa­thy.”

Hum­ming­birds are good at let­ting Masear know they are grate­ful — of­ten hov­er­ing in front of her face in a kind of aerial thank-you — be­fore they zoom away and are gone. But Gabriel and Pep­per push past that be­hav­ior, of­fer­ing a pow­er­ful story of in­ter­species com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trust.

The last words of “Fastest Things on Wings” are: “I am fly­ing.” A fit­ting end to a book that will change for­ever the way you look at these lit­tle birds.

Rocky Stickel Houghton Miff lin Har­cour t

HUM­MING­BIRDS are re­vealed to be not only gor­geous mas­ters of f light but trust­ing souls too.

John Masear Houghton Miff lin Har­cour t

TERRY MASEAR, au­thor and hum­ming­bird re­hab­ber.

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