For almost ten years in early March a hummingbird has nested in a lovely tree in our backyard next to the lemon tree and bordering the outdoor kitchen. Several times we have witnessed the birth of one or two little hummers.
One year the nest was low and visible enough that I got a photo of Momma when she first returned. At the end of April I saw her perched on the edge of the nest as the babies stretched up their fragile little necks to be fed. And then one day they were all gone, hopefully having had a successful launch.
Another year, my husband Hank saw a baby climb to the edge of the nest and out to the limb. Flapped its wings on and off for about twenty minutes while the mother sat on a limb about three feet away. Then the little bird flew to the limb where the mother was. Later both were gone. The empty nest remained for some weeks after.
Momma was back this year. I like to think it has been the same female in the last three years. This year’s nest was extra small and made of light-colored fragments. It was so camouflaged among the leaves of the tree I couldn’t get a good photo. My observations were confined to in-person checks each morning or using my binoculars in late afternoon. Around the end of April I finally saw Momma perched on the edge of the nest. This meant the eggs were hatched and she was in the feeding position, bobbing her head up and down to feed her babies.
After a few feeding days, Momma hummer wasn’t sitting on the nest. She did a flyby several times a day. Online research told me the parent does not stay on the nest once the babies begin to have their little pinfeathers and can keep themselves warm. This reduces the chance of predators seeing the nest. But she comes to feed them and is always nearby.
One morning this week I was watching for her fly by or feeding time and saw the nest had fallen apart – a section still in the branches and part hanging down like a blob of carelessly thrown tinsel on a Christmas tree. No Momma for fifteen minutes, or thirty. Then she was zooming around the tree but not going near it. I went out to look. I read that hummers can recognize colors. They have a mega brain (for a bird) and remember every flower they ever went to. They also can recognize faces of humans, especially those who fill their feeder. I only hoped she recognized me as the safe person who viewed from a distance.
That’s when I saw a perfectly formed lifeless baby bird on the patio under the tree. If hummers can interpret emotions, that Momma must have known how painful it was for me to see the body of that baby bird.
I was even more startled when I saw another baby was stuck by one tiny leg in the tangled hanging mass from the nest, twisting and trembling.
I’m not a passionate animal or bird lover. I think dogs are funny companions, snakes don’t alarm me, but I don’t need to care for them.
But I found myself crooning and talking to both the baby and mother. “It’s okay. I’ll help you. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. I want to help.”
Got to my laptop in about 15 seconds and was googling how to rescue a hummingbird. Of course there were many sites. I used Life, Birds, and Everything
I’m paraphrasing here but this was the gist of what to do: Use leaves or gently put the baby on a soft material. If you can’t find the nest, put the baby in a cardboard box, lined with the material for it to be able to grip. Add any nest material you can find. Put the new “nest” back as close as possible to the original site. If necessary staple the cardboard box to a branch. Do not try to do anything after this. If the female returns, leave the nest alone. Your job is done.
I was fired up. I could do this, with the help of my husband. A very new and helpful fact for us: hummingbirds have no sense of sense so will not avoid the nest or baby if humans touch it. We rescued the baby, a really tiny baby, hanging and twisting with a bent back little wing. We put it in a cardboard box with what was left of the nest and a cut-up cloth headband. Before I put the “nest” in the tree again I put a dropper of water near Baby Hummer’s tiny beak. It opened its mouth but was very shaky. We stapled the box back in the tree near where the nest had been. Then we tiptoed away. After the box was up in the tree Momma came zooming around and perched on the edge!
Now to see if survival was possible. No guarantees. We had to wait and see.
The next morning I woke up at 6:00. Hummingbird. Check the nest. No, wait a while. I was doing my mat work by our patio windows when Momma came fluttering up to the window, darting up and down.
“What? What is it?” I got the step stool and went out to take a look. The “nest” and branch had a disturbing line of little ants going along it. The baby didn’t make it. Not a Hollywood ending.
What a tragic story. Why tell about this during this time of of the COVID19 pandemic? How weird. How cruel to tell this now.
I don’t think so. Yes, I cried when I saw the baby bird’s body. I had to sit down for a few minutes and just… stare. But strangely, I didn’t feel like I had failed. I felt proud that I had tried. Without any thought to the percentage rate of success, I tried. I also realize I’ll be on the lookout for other ways I can try to help – with an animal, a bird, a friend, a neighbor, myself. Because that’s what we do.
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she’s writing to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it.