The Gift of Caring for Baby Hummingbirds

Photo by Hal Beral

The Gift of Caring for Baby Hummingbirds

One writer learns that this task is anything but a burden. 

By Sy Montgomery
Published: March-April 2013

When they were found, the infants were nearly dead. Hatching from eggs the size of Navy beans, they were bumblebee size, pink, naked, and blind. That's when my friend Brenda Sherburn, who specializes in raising orphaned baby hummingbirds, received a call. I flew from New Hampshire to California to help.

Even for a mother hummingbird, raising nestlings is a daunting job. She leaves the nest up to 200 times a day to gather food. For a human, raising baby hummingbirds is a positively Herculean task--as I soon found out.

Every 20 minutes, from dawn to dark, the babies need food. That means catching hundreds of fruit flies a day, freezing them, crushing them with mortar and pestle, and mixing the mush with special nectar supplemented with vitamins, enzymes, and oils in precise combination. The mixture spoils easily. If it does, it can kill the baby birds.

In fact, it seems everything can kill them. In the wild, yellow jackets can sting them to death. Hawks, jays, roadrunners, opossums, even dragonflies eat them. They can die of cold. They can die of heat. They will certainly die if left alone. But an inept surrogate mother can kill them easily, too, as Brenda explained.

Carefully she showed me how to fill a syringe and thread a thin catheter down the babies' throats. I was petrified. Nothing seems as delicate as a baby hummingbird: You can damage their feathers by touching them; their feet are thin as thread. I feared I would hurt their mouths. I feared they'd choke on their food. But even worse can happen, Brenda told me: "If you overfeed them," she said, "they can actually pop."

If you miss a feeding, they can starve. Brenda set a timer so there was no risk we'd forget. For weeks, inch-and-a-half-long baby birds ruled our days.

Brenda is a professional artist, but she couldn't work on her sculptures or pastels. Nor could I write. In the 20-minute snippets between feedings, we could never fit in a workout at the gym or a long phone call to a friend. Before breakfast, one of us ground coffee beans, the other did fruit flies. We gulped lunch. We interrupted each dinner at least twice to feed the little birds.

"Everything stops for the hummingbirds," Brenda told me. That's why it's so hard to find volunteers to care for them. Could I commit to such a schedule? I wondered.

The next morning, I watched one of the babies stretch a membranous wing to preen. Tissue paper is armor in comparison. And then, before my astonished eyes, the tiny creature stood up in its nest and whirred its wings with concentrated ferocity. How can this bird summon a resting heartbeat of 500 times a minute, revving to 1,500 times a minute when, one day, God willing, this gossamer being conquers the sky?

Then, I understood: Not only could I do this, but it was an honor I'd cherish.

When the Spanish first encountered hummingbirds (they live only in the New World) they called them Resurrection Birds--for surely something this shining and perfect died each night and was reborn the next morning.

This names the gift that working with these nestlings gave to me. They allowed me a hand in resurrection. If they lived, they would go on to even greater miracles. These nestlings proved to be Allen's hummingbirds. The adult males of this tiny species perform a nuptial flight that, in terms of body lengths covered per second, bests the speed of the Space Shuttle as it screams toward earth through the atmosphere.  

But all birds, of course, are miracles, and humans have known this for millennia. We have looked to birds as oracles. Our hearts soar on their wings and their songs. Even the tiniest bird can teach us that life is larger than humankind alone.

So each time our timer buzzed, signaling another feeding, I came to understand that life wasn't stopping for the hummingbirds; each feeding instead offered a chance to begin life anew. This is the lesson birds teach us. Every day, we can witness miracles. Each day, we can participate in resurrection, in mending the broken world.

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Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery is the author of Birdology and 16 other books.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine