The two orphaned baby hummingbirds were just a few days old when they came into the hands of Brenda Sherburn LaBelle.
Soon after, she was joined by writer Sy Montgomery.
“I so admired her and I was delighted to be able to help her and document what she was doing,” Montgomery says. “So when these two little orphans showed up, she called me up. I got on the plane and I flew out as fast as I could.
Montgomery has had countless encounters in her career with ferocious and fascinating creatures of all kinds, but her newest book, “The Hummingbirds’ Gift,” focuses on this tiny but fierce pair of orphaned hummingbirds that she helped raise with Sherburn LaBelle, an artist and hummingbird rehabilitator.
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For Montgomery, the experience was daunting, draining, miraculous and, ultimately, deeply rewarding.
“In rehabilitating them, in saving their lives, in being able to let them go free as adults, the gift that they gave us was giving us a hand in resurrection.”
“In rehabilitating them, in saving their lives, in being able to let them go free as adults, the gift that they gave us was giving us a hand in resurrection,” Montgomery says. “And to be able, essentially, to restore these amazing little birds to the sky, these birds that are superlative in so many ways, to have a hand in making that happen is enormously empowering and inspiring. And particularly right now. We’ve been through this pandemic and a terrible period of environmental catastrophe and racial unrest and political upheaval. It’s so good to have a story like this of a small miracle, reminding us that we can have a hand in restoring life.”
Hummingbirds best illustrate one of the most fascinating thing about birds, Montgomery says: They are essentially “made out of air.”
Most birds’ feathers outweigh their skeletons because their bones are hollow and their bodies are filled with air sacs, she explains. A hummingbird has no fewer than nine big air sacs, in addition to two huge lungs and a giant heart. “They are so air-filled that even giving them an injection, if they’re sick, can pop an air sac and kill them,” Montgomery says.
“[I]t’s [their] very fragility — the fact that they are little more than bubbles cloaked in these iridescent feathers — this is what gives them their superpowers of super flight.”
“But it’s this very fragility — the fact that they are little more than bubbles cloaked in these iridescent feathers — this is what gives them their superpowers of super flight,” she explains. “Because only hummingbirds can hover, alone among birds. It may look sometimes like a seagull, for example, is hovering, but it’s not really hovering. These guys can just hover in the middle of the air for minutes.”
Not only can hummingbirds perform this acrobatic feat, they also have one of the longest migratory journeys of any creature on Earth and they’re the fastest birds in the sky, if measured per-body-length.
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“In fact, they travel faster, in terms of body length, through the sky than even the space shuttle when it screams down through the atmosphere,” Montgomery says. “So these birds are supremely gifted with these amazing powers. And they owe all those powers to the very thing that makes them most vulnerable and fragile.”
Taking care of two tiny orphaned birds is a demanding task.
”Every 20 minutes, from dawn to dusk, everything must stop because if you don’t feed them every 20 minutes, they will starve,” Montgomery explains. “And you have to feed them exactly the right food and exactly the right amount. If they don’t get enough, they’ll starve.”
Montgomery became a 24-hour-a-day nurse to the baby hummingbirds, grinding up frozen fruit flies in the early morning hours, feeding them a special elixir of nectar through a long tube and a syringe, and guarding against some of the dangers that can afflict hummingbirds, including different kinds of mites.
Treating the birds’ mites was one of the more harrowing episodes of the rehabilitation, but Montgomery and Sherburn LaBelle got them through it.
“Oh, it was so awful. Oh my gosh, it was terrible,” Montgomery says. … [W]e realized, Oh my gosh, this infestation is really serious. We’re going to have to treat them with insecticide. And, as you know, all insecticides can be lethal. And you’ve got to use just the right amount. And you also have to dip the birds in water, which they hated. And they peeped terribly after we applied the insecticide. They just sat there listlessly trying to recover from this and we could have killed them. It was horrible. We did not know for many, many minutes if they were going to survive this.”
“We loved them so much. … We didn’t want to just call them the big one and the little one. And that’s when we named them Maya and Zuni. And they both survived.”
During this time, while waiting to see if the birds would recover from their treatment, the two women decided, against the received wisdom of most rehabilitators, to name them. “We loved them so much. … We didn’t want to just call them the big one and the little one,” Montgomery says. “And that’s when we named them Maya and Zuni. And they both survived.”
Releasing the two birds back into the wild was bittersweet, Montgomery says, but it also led to one of her most memorable experiences.
They let Maya go first because he was the larger of the two. When he tried to come near a feeder, the other adult hummingbirds, who are fiercely protective of their feeding places, would chase him away.
“But what did he do? He came and got us,” Montgomery says. “And we could actually go out and hold a feeder in our hands that the other hummingbirds were afraid to approach, and he would feed directly from our hands.”
Montgomery hopes readers of her book will “see that miracles happen all the time, and that we can take a hand in them and that even in small ways, we can heal the problems that are besetting our Earth.”
“The hummingbirds, to me, are a great symbol of hope because, after all, it’s their fragility and their vulnerability that gives them their strength,” she says. “And right now, so many of us are feeling vulnerable and fragile, and we don’t know what’s ahead. But if you look at a hummingbird and what it’s able to accomplish, the superlatives that it can achieve, we should be able to help heal this Earth we messed up to begin with.”
This article is by Adam Wernick, based on an interview that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.