THE HUMMINGBIRDS’ GIFT: WONDER, BEAUTY AND RENEWAL ON WINGS
By Sy Montgomery
Atria Books (May 4, 2021), 1982176083
The incubator is just a glass and metal box, about the size of a double-wide microwave. Nothing much to look at: it’s got a couple of dials and a glass front and makes a soft humming sound as it goes about its task of keeping the temperature inside a constant 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 percent humidity. But I have spent the day flying across the country, from Manchester, New Hampshire to San Francisco, California, ridden a bus across the San Francisco Bridge to Marin County, and finally caught a ride with my friend, Brenda Sherburne La Belle, all for the chance to look in this machine. For today the incubator is a jewel box, containing priceless gems.
The machine sits on a table by the window in the guest bedroom at Brenda’s house. I hold my breath as she swings open the glass door. She reaches in and removes a small red plastic utility basket—the kind in which parents store their kids’ crayons. She places the basket atop the incubator so I can get a better look.
There, raised an inch above the Kleenex lining the bottom, resting on a pedestal fashioned from the cardboard core of a toilet paper roll, is a cuplike nest the diameter of a quarter. It’s soft as cotton candy, made from puffs of plant down and strands of spider silk and decorated with lichens. Inside, facing opposite directions, with short black bills and eyes tiny as dressmakers’ pins, are two baby hummingbirds. Each is less than an inch and a half long. They are dazzlingly perfect, tiny, and vulnerable.
Together they weigh less than a bigger bird’s single flight feather. They are probably ten and thirteen days old. Already the greenish feathers on their heads hint at the opalescent glow that inspire naturalists to call the hummingbird “a glittering fragment of the rainbow,” “a breathing gem,” “a magic carbuncle of flaming fire.” A week ago, these birds were the size of bumblebees, pink, blind and naked. After their mother disappeared, they spent a night and a morning alone, starving. It seems a miracle they are alive.
“When I got them, I was pretty sure at least one wouldn’t make it,” Brenda whispers. They were then about three and five days old, with no feathers or eyesight—just hunger and need. “The first three days with them, when they’re this small, it’s really touch and go,” she said. “When you get a baby, you don’t really know what it went through till it got to you.”
But Brenda knows exactly what the babies need right now: two hundred fruit fries. They’re best caught fresh, crushed with a mortar and pestle, then mixed with a special nectar supplemented with vitamins, enzymes and oils. From dawn to dusk, this food must be delivered into the babies’ desperately gaping mouths by syringe, every twenty minutes. Because the food spoils easily, a fresh batch must be concocted several times a day. Brenda is one of a small handful of volunteer wildlife rehabilitators willing and qualified to do so.
I was lucky enough to meet her, though a mutual friend, while Brenda was visiting family in New Hampshire the autumn before. Instantly, I liked her. A 56-year-old sculptor and mother of three, she’s a five-foot-three powerhouse in dark bangs and a pageboy: her skills range from casting her own bronze to founding an art collaborative for kids to raise funds for conservation. But perhaps even rarer than her energy is her patience. As we sipped tea in my kitchen the afternoon we met, she answered my questions for more than two hours, speaking in careful, sometimes halting, always thoughtful phrases of the intricacies of hummingbird rehabilitation. The work demands extraordinary precision and commitment. The plights of her charges are often pathetic. Yet, as she spoke, her brown eyes shone with merriment. “The word cute was really invented for a baby hummingbird!” she said. “They are so cute and so fast, so curious and smart– and yet so little is known about them.
“To put a little hummingbird back in the wild,” she told me, “might seem like a little thing. But it’s a big thing.” What is it like to restore these tiny glimmers of birds to the sky? I wondered. Brenda was generous enough to invite me to come to California at the home she shares with her husband, Russ La Belle, to observe her work.