A hummingbird ICU in a bird whisperer’s garage.
You don’t have to be a bird person in general or a hummingbird person specifically to read this book. You don’t need to know anything about birds at all. The very gifted bird whisperer Terry Masear has you covered. She’s one of California’s hardest-working-hummingbird rehabilitators. What she knows about these tiny wonders will leave the average bird lover agog.
Hummingbirds are among the smallest birds, the tiniest of them weighing less than a penny. They have long, narrow bills and small, saber like wings that can rotate in a full circle. They are the only birds that can fly both forward and backward; they can hover in mid-air, fly sideways and even upside down. Their average speed is 25-30 mph, with dives up to 60 mph. If not for their magnificent colors, the human eye might have trouble spotting them at all. And hummingbirds are smart. Boy, are they smart. A hummingbird can remember every flower it has ever been to and how long it takes that flower to refill with nectar.
Wondrous creatures, indeed! But sometimes, even a wondrous creature can run into trouble. It can be injured by strong winds, drenched by a raging storm, smacked by a passing car or de-nested by a curious or careless human. And when any of these things happen in Southern California, Masear is the person to call. Her immersion in the world of hummingbird rehab in 2005 began by accident, as these things often do. One of her cats found a hummingbird chick that had been blown out of its nest during a storm. That’s all it took. Before she knew it, Masear was being mentored by one of the world’s most experienced authorities on hummingbird rehabilitation. The die was cast. “Joining wildlife rescue is a little like getting involved with the Mob: once you’re in, it’s for life,” she writes. “When you’re a rehabber, you can’t quit and walk away. Too many things depend on you.”
That’s why there’s an ICU set up in her garage and various flight cages at sundry levels scattered throughout her home. Over the years, she’s slowly turned her home into a hospital, an aviary and a haven for hummingbirds. A typical stint in rehab runs six to eight weeks. During this time, Masear sees hummingbirds at all stages of growth and development— from the “naked baby” newborn stage through the “dinofuzz,” “bobble-head” and “feather-duster” stages, all the way to fledglings and eventually adults.
“Our primary goal is to keep jeopardized birds in their natural environment and out of rehab,” she writes. Injured, orphaned or otherwise damaged birds should be brought to her only as a last resort. So when she’s not on the phone answering hotline questions and trying to help the masses solve their hummingbird problems in the field, she’s tending to the 50 or 60 birds she has on hand at any given time. She warms them, bathes them, hand-feeds them and treats them for disease or infection; she even gives the injured ones flight lessons.
This is not glamorous work. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Some of these animals suffer. Many recover; some do not. Andit is relentless. From April through August, her life becomes a blur of birds. “There is no such thing as a day off or a vacation,” she writes. “Leaving town is out of the question. I can’t leave home for more than thirty minutes during daylight hours. . . . If I need to go to the doctor or dentist, I put it off until September. I can’t even get a haircut.”
If only Masear’s world were filled with just birds. But, no! Her work is a lot more complicated than that. To help the birds, she first has to get past the sometimes strange or troubled people who bring them to her. An endless flow of people seek her out. They call her hotline. They find her by word of mouth or on the Internet. Hummingbird rescue may be the great equalizer. The would-be heroes who bring in birds come from a dizzying array of educational levels, professions, social classes and ethnic backgrounds. “I’ve taken in birds from drug dealers, gangbangers, the morally bankrupt, the criminally insane, and other degenerates lingering on the periphery that nobody has bothered to report,” she writes. Masear often names the birds after their finders (Gabriel, Brad, Iris) or after some quirk or characteristic that the birds display (the Brown-Sugar Twins, Pepper or Chucky, “the angriest hummingbird ever to come through rehab”).
Often the rescuers’ actions have put the birds in jeopardy. Masear can be forgiven, then, when she loses her temper— calling one child rescuer a “nest robber.” Or when she becomes preachy, as in the earful she gives to one wealthy woman who cut off from her rosebush a nest with a pair of two-week-old chicks in it. The “coldhearted” woman was “too busy” to bring the defenseless birds to rehab. At times, Masear’s patience wears thin, and you can certainly understand why.
This is a book about hummingbirds, yes. But it’s also a book about human nature and acts of human kindness. It’s about the need to connect and the need to make things right after they’ve gone wrong. And it’s also about one remarkable woman who has dedicated herself to helping some of our smallest and most vulnerable creatures. “When birds arrive atmy door lost, broken, and terrified, the distinctions between us fall away,” Masear writes, “and they are no longer wild animals separate from my humanity. Instead, I am right there with them sharing their troubles, fear, and pain.” Masear describes a common phenomenon among rehabbers called “compassion fatigue,” the mental and emotional stress caregivers experience as a result of the constant demands of caring for others.
With a book of this nature, you might be at risk of experiencing this phenomenon, too. Each chapter is packed with stories of injured or orphaned birds. But in Masear’s capable hands, the fatigue never truly settles on you. Instead, you come away with a sense of awe for the tenacity and toughness of these wild animals and their sheer will to survive.
By Terry Masear Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 306 pp. $25 FASTEST THINGS ON WINGS Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood