October 20, 2015 11:35:03 AM
We have bird feeders in our garden and I glance at them now and then, looking at the cardinals, sparrows, and doves that come to get sunflower seeds. When hummingbirds come to the sugar water feeders, though, I pay attention. Hummingbirds, for me and for lots of other people, have a special fascination. You don't have to be devoted to hummingbirds to enjoy Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Terry Masear, but my guess is that if you are like most people, these fascinating little birds grab your attention whenever you get to see them. It isn't just hummingbirds that this funny and moving book is about, though; there are lots of peculiar people in Hollywood, some of them agreeable hummingbird nuts and some of them just nuts. Masear, who is a registered hummingbird rehabilitation specialist, also teaches English as a second language, and her prose is smooth and engaging, telling stories from a little world that few of the rest of us will enter.
Masear rescued her first hummingbird in 2003; her cat had escaped from the house and brought back a chick. After calling around, she learned that the person to help such a chick was Jean Roper, a veteran hummingbird rehabber. Roper (to whom the book is dedicated) took the bird in and made it clear she was looking for volunteers. Masear didn't take her up on it until she rescued another hummingbird the next spring. This time she did start volunteering, with Roper as her guide and confessor. Her life was forever changed: "Joining wildlife rescue is like getting involved with the Mob: once you're in, it's for life. When you're a rehabber, you can't quit and walk away. Too many things depend on you." So her husband helped by building cages and an aviary in their home, and she got certified to care for the stranded or injured birds (they are wild birds and so are not to be kept by just anyone), and she started taking calls. Life was never to be the same. "Once orphaned nestlings start arriving, I can't go anywhere for very long." There is no going out for summer vacation for the Hollywood hummingbird rehabber, or even going out to lunch during hummingbird months. It's a good thing she so obviously loves the work.
Not all the calls have to do with "What do I do with this poor disabled / orphaned hummingbird?" People need lots of advice about these wild creatures. One caring woman called to say that there was a dead hummingbird mother on the ground, and nestlings that were abandoned. But on the phone, Masear was able to advise her to watch the nest and see if the mother came back to feed the chicks. Indeed, the mother came back, and Masear gives the advice to move the hummingbird feeder away from the nest; the mother had killed that other hummingbird because it was too close to the nest. This brings up an important aspect of hummingbird personalities that anyone who has watched them at feeders knows about: they are nasty. They do not like one another, and are highly territorial, and spend lots of time chasing each other. Not only that, but these adorable little birds are quite able to fight to the death over food, sex, and territory; they endanger themselves more than storms or humans do. "Despite hummingbirds' violent impulses, most people continue to regard them as adorable, proving that if something is small and pretty enough, it can get away with murder." Another bit of advice Masear is able to give on the phone is about nest repair; windstorms sometimes tear up the nests leaving the fledglings hanging. The secret: pipe cleaners.
Most of the problems she solves are not able to be taken care of by phone calls (20,000 callers in her decade of rehabbing), except by a conversation that concludes, "You need to bring the bird in here now." Some people are reluctant to do this, thinking they can take care of nestlings themselves by giving them sugar water. Hummingbirds do not live on sugar alone; they need it for energy, but they eat insects in order to get essential protein. Masear takes calls from people who have tried to nurse hummingbirds with sugar water supplemented by insects such as ants; hummingbirds do not eat ground insects like ants, which have heavy exoskeletons and stick in their guts. They eat fruit flies; Masear explains about how she buys overripe bananas to put in the aviary to bring in fruit flies. One measure of how fit fledgling hummingbirds are getting is how fast they learn to catch the fruit flies on the wing, and there is a real learning curve to the process.
There are all sorts of callers who need Masear's help. One man says he hangs out twenty feeders a day. "I have to fill them all every day. I can't leave LA. I can't go anywhere. I would feel too guilty." She replies that she knows just how he feels. Another caller has one thousand potted plants specifically set out to get hummingbirds. Masear is surprised by some emaciated Goths who seemed unable to care for their own health but brought in a starving hummingbird. "I've taken in hummingbirds from drug dealers, gangbangers, the morally bankrupt, the criminally insane, and other degenerates lingering on the periphery that nobody has bothered to report. But the atrocities damaged humans commit against one another do not translate into ill intentions toward the orphaned and injured hummingbirds these lost souls rush to my door." Some people call thinking that her hummingbird connection gives her some sort of ability to travel through supernatural portals, and some confess that hummingbirds are their spirit animals or totems (this is Los Angeles, after all). Then there are calls from firemen. "I get two or three emergency calls every year reporting hummingbirds trapped in fire stations. I tell the firefighters to move the trucks just outside the door. They always call me back in astonishment when it works."
So Masear's story is not just about hummingbirds, but about humans. Some of the humans are awful, like the wealthy woman who pruned her rosebush and cut off a nest with a pair of chicks in it, but said she was just too busy to bring the poor birds in to be saved. Most of the callers, though, are trying to help out, although more than a few have the wrong idea of what real help would be. Masear is busy steering them right, and taking in defenseless little birds every day, April through August every year, and is unable to find time in those months to do anything else, even to get a haircut. It's a unique volunteer calling, and a unique, funny, and informative book that will have readers appreciating her valuable work and the fascinating little creatures who benefit.