Friday, January 08, 2016

Skyborne Jewels

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, birds, hummingbirds, animal rescue, animal rehabilitation

Terry Masear rehabilitates distressed hummingbirds. She operates one of a handful of hummingbird rehabilitation "clinics" that is not run by the state of California. Her book Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood mingles powerful narrative with lyrical writing while taking us through a typical season.

Dr. Masear is a professor most of the year. By the middle of her Spring semester, baby hummingbirds begin being blown from nests, or they and their nests are inadvertently (or callously) cut out of trees during "spring cleanup", or adult birds amid full-tilt chick-raising duties bang into windows and cars and sustain other surprises. Various concerned folk bring them to her for care. Her home and its different levels of caged care, and a "graduating bird" aviary, fill up with as many as 50-100 birds at a time, as 150 or more pass through her routines of care on their way to full strength and release. At least, most of them do; a certain percentage are too badly injured or suffer radically improper "care" before desperate "rescuers" bring them to her as a last resort. Caring for hummingbirds is her summer "job", a costly one in terms of money and emotional stress and sheer physical labor.

Did you know that a growing baby hummingbird needs to eat at least 100 to 150 fruit flies daily to get adequate protein? The sugar water they get from backyard hummingbird feeders helps them keep up their energy levels for catching prey, as does the nectar they so avidly consume. Nectar, though, contains some protein and often has an extra amount from pollen that drops in. Sugar water? Nope. So they have to catch even more fruit flies. But the fast energy of sugar water has contributed to the booming population of these little jeweled flyers, particularly in temperate places like the Los Angeles basin.

The trouble comes when someone finds an injured bird and wants to help it get better, but feeds it only sugar water. It drinks it readily enough, but wastes away nonetheless. Or, possibly worse, someone who knows the bird needs protein tries to feed it house flies. They are too coarse and harsh. It'll snap them up, but its crop will fill up and get plugged, and without quick, expert action, it will starve to death. Only someone willing to buy browning bananas and let them rot and attract (and breed) fruit flies, and then lets the bird snatch them up, can hope to restore the bird's strength. Terry and her colleagues have a feeder mix with the right balance to feed them properly.

The bottom line? Call Terry or another specialized hummingbird shelter and take it there. I used the phrase "various concerned folk" above, and I do mean Various! The author has a chapter and more on her continual surprise at the people who bring her birds that need help…and some that won't. She spends at least as much time on the phone with people as she does with the birds in her care. Some people need to be talked through the best way to get a fallen or cut-off nest back to as nearly the same location where it was before. Others need to learn how to keep a bird alive overnight until they can bring it to her. Some need to be scolded for unconcern if they are too self-absorbed to do anything, saying, "Oh, well, maybe I'll just let nature take its course." Her retort, not always aloud, is "If you fell and broke a leg and were lying in the gutter, would you want every passer-by to "let nature take its course" until you died and were eaten by crows?"

The fact is, hummingbirds have hazards enough in their lives in places without people. They have a great many more hazards in our suburbs and cities. Why let "nature take its course" when the bird's need for help was not "natural" in the first place? Who cut the branch out of the tree? Who put up a house with large, almost invisible windows for birds to crash into? Wildlife of all kinds dies more often in our presence than in places we are not.

Near the end of the summer "distressed bird" season, the state-run bird shelters have a policy to take in no new fledglings. So Terry and the other private facilities get them all. A mixed blessing, just as she is getting ready to teach a new semester. But by late Fall, her cages have emptied and she can devote herself to her students.

I don't know what it is like to hold a two-ounce hummingbird in hand; by the author's account it is enthralling. The only bird I rescued was a seagull caught in fishing line, and that's a bird strong enough to do some damage if it doesn't agree with being handled. But people of all kinds, of all social strata and niches, seem to have a specially soft place in their heart for hummingbirds. They fall under the bird's spell, bring it to someone like Terry, and often get positively teary with thanks for her help. She wrote of getting a call from Pomona, and the guy said he'd "be right there". It is usually about an hour's drive. He got there in 20 minutes, roaring up her driveway in a big motorcycle. She asked how he came so fast, and he said, "Carpool lane," handed her a spark plug box with a tiny injured bird inside, and roared off.

Hummingbirds are spellbinding. So is Dr. Masear's writing. Excellence in action.

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