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Book Review


The Hummingbird's Gift:
Wonder, Beauty and Renewal on Wings
By Sy Montgomery
Simon and Schuster, New York 2021

Curtis Abraham


The fragility of hummingbirds is a metaphor for the fragility of our world today. The precariousness of all life on earth in the Anthropocene.

And yet, these tiny, fragile creatures also represent resurrection, a theme that runs deep in the human psyche. Resurrection is a reoccurring theme in the myths and legends of human societies from ancient times onwards. Perhaps it is a reflection of our natural world (one of the great tragedies, and there are many, about the current climate crisis is that we humans are making it harder for the earth to heal itself after the damage done to her starting in the Ice Age and accelerating during the Industrial Revolution and beyond).

In Sy Montgomery’s latest book she follows the rehabilitation (resurrection) of two Allen’s hummingbirds (a species of hummingbird in the genus Selasphorus that breeds in the western United States), Maya and Zuni, twins, and in so doing reuniting with an old friend, the California-based artist and hummingbird conservationist Brenda Sherburn LaBelle.

The book describes LaBelle’s efforts as a hummingbird rehabilitator of orphaned humming birds- a Mother Theresa-like figure Montgomery calls her, but in reality a mother hummer in human drag. 

The twins were found by a husband and wife returning from their wedding and honeymoon in Hawaii. They first saw a lone hummingbird frequenting a passion fruit vine six feet from their front door (mature hummers feed primarily on flower nectar, tree sap and tiny insects such as fruit flies. They also frequent hummingbird feeders).

Then, one grief-stricken day, the mother hummer disappeared without a trace (grief-stricken is the correct word since this was a couple who adores nature to the extent that they once rescued an abandoned goldfish (“Starvin Gavin”) they found living in a barrel at a house they rented in Mill Valley. The husband fed it, then abandoned it when the couple moved house, then, after an anxiety-filled sleepless night, rescued it again).  

The wife had a spiritual connection to hummers (a fortune-teller/shaman once told her that her sacred totem was the hummingbird). The couple eventually discovered the nest in the passion fruit vine.

“Two pink, naked babies popped their heads up gaping voiceless for food,” writes Montgomery.

The orphaned babies deteriorating physical condition led the couple in a cold sweat to WildCare the next day.

“Over the course of weeks, I spent helping Brenda, I learned just how demanding and fraught was our task,” recalls Montgomery.

In this instance, Sy could have been an abbreviation for sympathetic because one needed an abundance of it in nursing these tiny creatures, soap bubbles floating on air, back to health.

“Successes with injured hummingbirds are rare,” says Montgomery. “Most medical treatments kill them.”

Just a little too much medicine can be lethal. The same goes for food. Feed them too little and they will die. Feed them too much and they will explode.

Their daily sustenance of fruit fly nectar cocktail (Brenda’s husband Russ collects the bugs from his brother’s compost pile) is given through a slender catheter fitted onto a 1 cc syringe (zoos and reptile hobbyists use the frozen variety of fruit flies).

A rehabilitator life revolves around the orphaned hummers. For instance, a timer has to be set for feeding time. A rehabilitator’s own food has to be cooked quickly and devoured quickly with one eye on the timer since the baby birds are fed every 20 minutes.

LaBelle abode is kitted out for hummer care. No less than five nectar feeders are set up in different corners of her house, which attracts the four different species of hummingbirds native to that area. She reports her daily sightings to Cornell University National Project FeederWatch, which aids scientists keep track of bird populations.

“Hummingbirds are less flesh than fairies,” writes Montgomery. “They are little more than bubbles fringed with iridescent feathers-air wrapped in light.” There are an estimated 340-360 species of hummingbirds, which all live in the western hemisphere. The largest, The Giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), lives in the Andes South America and measures eight inches in length, while the smallest, the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba (Mellisuga helenae) , is just over two inches long and weighs just one gram. 

Their small size allows them considerable speed. For example, in its courtship display to impress a female, a male Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second-and pulling out of his plunge, “he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity”.

The Rufous hummingbird makes an astonishing annual migration from Mexico to nest in Alaska. It’s the longest migration of any bird on the planet in terms of body lengths.

A remarkable feat considering that birds are, more or less, made of air. In contrast to heavy boned mammals, like us humans, filled with weighty fluids, bird bones are hollow. Their skulls contains passageways for air. Even their skulls contained passageways for air. Even their feather shafts are also hollow.

“Their bodies are filled with air sacs, which originate in, and function, in part, as extensions of the lungs.”

Montgomery tells us that “no fewer than nine of those filmy bladders fill the tiny body of a hummingbird: one pair in the chest cavity, another under each shoulder blade; another pair in the abdomen; one under each wing; and along the neck.”

Hummingbirds are the lightest birds in the sky and, for their size, the fastest. Certain species of their family (Trochilidae) are long-distance migration mavens. For instance, the Rufous hummingbird flies from Mexican wintering grounds to nesting areas in Alaska.

Hummers are made of no less than nine air sacs, two large lungs and literally a big heart. These are the only birds on earth that can hover mid-air. Mother hummers might make more than a hundred flights a day to find food for their babies.

Hummingbird’s wings beat at a rate of more than sixty times a second, but it was only through an advance in technology that scientists were able to understand exactly how these birds were able to hover in mid-air. The invention of the stroboscope, which is used to make a cyclically moving object appear to be slow-moving, or stationary by having a flash duration of one hundred thousandth of a second, final revealed the hover motion of their wings.

Among the many natural and man-made dangers hummers face (and there are many) includes flying into spider webs while hunting bugs to getting blown off course during migrations and running out of steam to bass leaping from ponds and swallowing them whole to our on-going destruction of swamps and woodlands where hummers nest and dine on insects and drink the nectar of a bounty of botanical species. Common garden pesticides as well as pollutants are also hazards to hummers.

Their attraction to our ultimate symbol of danger, the color red, is an occupational hazard (they are particularly attracted to red feeders filled with nectar). A hummingbird’s eyesight far exceeds it sense of small. They are attracted to bright colors, which to them represent the bright colors of flowers, the rich source of nectar.

One surprising fact the book discusses are the dangers of the general public’s good intentions towards hummers. Montgomery provides us with anecdotes of what some orphaned birds have endured at the hands of kind-hearted humans: from valium overdose to lethal oily lentil soup covered wings to pre-maturely rescued baby birds in what they believed is an abandoned nest.

“If the babies are alone, they assume the nest is abandoned,” writes Montgomery. “But to feed her young, a mother hummingbird must leave the nest ten to 110 times a day. WildCare staff always tell callers to watch the nest for at least twenty minutes to make sure the babies are really abandoned.”

But on the flip side, she tells us remarkable tales of the incredible kindness and compassion hummingbirds in distress inspire in us humans. Once, am exhausted Ruby-Throated hummingbird landed on a drilling platform on the Mississippi coast in the US. The bird had been on an epic migration across the Gulf of Mexico-a journey that can require almost a full day of non-stop flying.

“The oil company dispatched a helicopter to fly it to shore. The hummingbird spent the winter in a gardener’s greenhouse, then left, fat and healthy on its spring migration,” says Montgomery

Brenda is  a sculptor. An aficionado of Native American art and supporter of Native American artists. She and husband Russ are the founders of Yampa Sculpture Path and Studio, a non-profit that sits on 12 acres of open land outside the town of Fort Bidwell in the far northeastern corner of California known as Surprise Valley.  

The land that Yampa Sculpture Path and Studio sits on, described as high desert and located on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, on the border with Nevada and Oregon.

“I want it to be a bridge between art and nature-sculpture within nature, as well as common ground for artists without any prejudices”, Brenda explained to Sy Montgomery.

Even the land she and husband Russ purchased towards hummers and other pollinators such as bees, butterflies and moths. The couple are planting groves and gardens to cater to these creatures: cornflowers, buddleias (“Butterfly Bush”), columbine, salvia, penstemon, etc.

Brenda and Russ’s planting activities will have created a microclimatic ecosystem as a buffer, a “little oases of shade and moisture”.

A paper in the journal Global Change Biology [“Microhabitats Reduce Animal’s Exposure to Climate Extremes”] acknowledges that even small spaces have “extraordinary potential to buffer climate and highly likely reduce mortality during extreme climate events.”

Lead author Brett R. Scheffers and colleagues argue:

“Extreme weather events, such as unusually hot or dry conditions, can cause death by exceeding physiological limits, and so cause loss of population. Survival will depend on whether or not susceptible organisms can find refuges that buffer extreme conditions. Microhabitats offer different microclimates to those found within the wider ecosystem, but do these microhabitats effectively buffer extreme climate events relative to the physiological requirements of the animals that frequent them?”

Montgomery reminds us that important pollinators such as hummingbirds are in serious trouble globally. Pollinators are essential to most of the world's food crops but have been in decline in recent decades due to the destruction of wild habitats, disease and pesticide use.

Honeybees as suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Bumblebee populations are said to be crashing. Butterfly populations are declining. As if weren’t enough, an astonishing three billion birds have vanished into thin air from North America alone.

According to the Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report, the Allen’s hummingbird is among the four species of hummingbirds that are among the reportedly half of all North American birds at risk. The four species are projected to lose 90 percent of their small breeding range due to human-induced climate disruption by 2030.

Like so much else in today’s world affected by rapid changes in the world’s climate, the life of hummers are in peril. California wildfires, for example, causes ash-covered trees, flowers and hummingbird feeders (one wonders what the smoke is doing to their tiny respiratory system).   

In her attempt to understand the nature of being a bird, Montgomery has discover an iridescent gem of wisdom. 

“Their story also holds a larger truth, like a parable.” Writes Montgomery. “If we, mere humans, could help transform these pathetically vulnerable infants to rulers of the sky, then perhaps our kind can heal our sweet, green, broken world.”

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