A hum­ming­bird ICU in a bird whis­perer’s garage.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Brenna Maloney is the editor of Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Ex­plorer and a vol­un­teer wildlife re­ha­bil­i­ta­tor for City Wildlife in Washington.

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

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