Excerpt: Fastest Things on Wings

With an orphaned Anna’s Hummingbird chick starting to go cold, a wildlife rescuer tries desperately to save it.

Excerpted from FASTEST THINGS ON WINGS: RESCUING HUMMINGBIRDS IN HOLLYWOOD. Used with the permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Published June 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Terry Masear. All rights reserved.

California is the land of Hollywood dreams, palm trees, and hummingbirds in peril. During the course of a decade, wildlife rehabber Terry Masear and her tight network of rescuers around Los Angeles have taken in nearly 5,000 of the tiny nectar feeders and given them a chance to flourish in the wild. They get all types of victims: car-struck, orphaned, homeless. Masear documents many of the stories in her new book, Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood. Here, in an excerpt from Chapter 5, she describes one difficult encounter with a fledgling that took place not long after she began working with the birds in 2005.   

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My introduction to the unforgiving side of rescue arrived early on, in the late winter of 2006, the start of my second year in the lifesaving business.

A stylishly dressed yuppie with two young children brought me a female Anna’s just about to fledge; the first baby of the year. The Beverly Hills sycamore tree her nest had been in was cut down to clear space for a tennis court. The family, who kept her for a day before calling me, dropped off the emerald-green, newly feathered, and impossibly cute two-inch nestling around dusk on a misty evening in March.

Since the kids had been feeding her sugar water in the car before they arrived, I placed the chick, still in her original nest, in the ICU in my garage, turned up the heat, and waited 30 minutes before returning to give her the protein formula we feed hummingbirds in rehabilitation. When I opened the sliding glass door to the ICU, she chirped for food, but her crop—a small transparent sac on the right side of the neck in which a hummingbird stores food—appeared full. I waited another 30 minutes before coming back to feed her. Again she cried, more adamantly this time, although her crop, which should have been flat and empty by then, still looked like a bubble. I filled a 1 cc syringe with formula and tried giving her a little, but the liquid leaked out the sides of her mouth and ran down the pale silver feathers on her breast. I waited an hour and came back. This time when she cried loudly for food, she began breathing through her mouth, and her crop was bulging. When I touched her, she felt ice-cold despite having been tucked into a nest in a 90-degree ICU for two hours. A hummingbird’s baseline temperature runs around 105 degrees, so when it feels cold to us, it’s a clear sign of slowing metabolism. At nine p.m., I called Jean in a panic.

“It sounds like her crop is blocked.” Jean sighed. “Do you know what they fed her?”

“No, but I have their phone number. I’ll call them.”

When I reached the woman who had delivered the bird, she assured me that they had given the chick only sugar water. I called Jean and reported this information with relief.

“She’s not telling the truth,” Jean countered flatly.

“Why would she lie?”

“Because she knows she screwed up. And now she’s afraid you’re going to jump all over her.”

“Well, that’s crazy,” I insisted. “I just want to save the bird. I’ll call her again.”

I called the finder back and explained that I wasn’t going to get angry but that I needed to know what she had fed the nestling so I could decide how to proceed.

“Nothing else, just sugar water,” she said.

“Are you sure? Because I need to know if there was anything else,” I pressed. With a little more prompting, she confessed the kids had fed the chick some ants.

“Ants?” I repeated in horror. “Hummingbirds never eat ants. Ants have a hard exoskeleton that won’t pass through their digestive system. Why would you let your kids do that?” I demanded.

“We thought she needed some protein,” the woman pushed back. “I’m sure she’ll be fine,” she added dismissively.

“You think so?” I scoffed, preparing to unload the last two hours of stress that was expressing itself through a brain-mashing headache. But my tone alerted her to the attack that was coming and she waved a white flag.

“I’m sorry. We didn’t know.” She fell silent as, despite my promise not to get angry, I upbraided her for not telling me sooner and then hung up, leaving her, I’m sure, crying guilty tears.

I called Jean and reported the disheartening information.

“People do that a lot.” Jean sighed with disdain. “They think all insects are alike. Now you’re going to have to siphon her crop.”

“Siphon her crop?” I repeated in horror.

“It’s her only chance, Terry.”

“But I have no idea how to do that,” I sputtered. “Why don’t I just bring her to you?”

“There’s not enough time for that. If she’s mouth-breathing, you have to do it right away,” Jean said, and then launched into instructions on how to perform a procedure that seemed to require the delicacy of brain surgery. “And be careful to position the angiocatheter in the right place and not to siphon too quickly or you’ll rupture the crop and she’ll die,” she added flatly at the end.

Two minutes later I was back in the garage in a heart-pounding panic, holding my breath as I managed to extract a syringe full of cold sugar water from the chick’s crop. Within minutes she looked infinitely relieved, so I fed her and waited. Thirty minutes later, her crop was bulging and she began mouth-breathing again. Out of desperation, I repeated the siphoning and then fed her an almost imperceptible amount of nectar. But the same thing happened, and the nestling continued to peep loudly. I called Jean, who suggested I put warm water in the syringe and try to dissolve any flinty debris obstructing the crop. I followed her directions, with the same dismal result.

“The ants are blocking her digestive system,” Jean said with resignation during my third call at 11 p.m. She suggested that I try to clear the digestive tract by massaging the chick’s abdomen, but it didn’t sound promising. “Beyond that, there’s not much you can do.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, Terry.”

But Jean wasn’t sorry simply because she had been unable to find a way to relieve the nestling’s suffering. She was sorry for what she knew was about to happen to me. Between my first inadvertent rainstorm rescue two years earlier and my 21 lifesaving triumphs since, I had come a long way in my education. And although Jean never said it directly, there had always been one last bridge to cross. A final test upon which all else depended. She was leaving me anxious and alone with the failing nestling, and her intent was clear: You want the full experience of hummingbird rescue? Well, here it is, in its uncut version. Make no mistake: if you choose to pursue this dream, this is one of the nightmares you’re signing up for.

Although the hands on the kitchen clock were sweeping toward midnight and I already felt spent, I couldn’t bear to leave the chick alone and crying in the incubator. I returned to the garage, took the nest her mother had artfully camouflaged with lime-green paint chips and that I had placed in a plastic salsa cup out of the ICU, and sat on the floor with her beside a small space heater. When she began thrashing and struggling to breathe, I lifted her out of the nest and held her in my hand. Using Reiki hand-warming techniques that a refreshingly enlightened hummingbird finder had introduced me to the year before, I was able to raise her body temperature a few degrees. At one in the morning, after she’d settled down and I’d started to fall asleep sitting against the brick wall, I tried to put her back in the nest, but she gripped my hand with her tiny claws and refused to let go. Each time I tried to place her in the nest, she anxiously clawed her way up onto the sleeve of my sweatshirt. So I sat holding her in the dim light as she stared up at me with unblinking dark eyes.

We remained locked in the grip of this unbreakable embrace for the eternity of an hour. It was just one tiny bird in the palm of my hand, but her disarming vulnerability and desperate desire to live coupled with my sad inability to help brought an avalanche of pain crashing down on me. By two o’clock she had me on my knees on the garage floor weeping, despite my efforts to be strong and professional. I had been fairly warned, from Jean and other rehabbers, of the danger that lay down this road. Signs of the anguish awaiting me in wildlife rescue lurked all around those first few years. Anybody could have seen it coming. Still, I had managed to deny it all, believing I would somehow sidestep the land mines. Most painfully, as I held the trembling nestling in my hand, I couldn’t accept how a creature so innocent and perfect could die such an agonizing death because of a careless mistake.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered as tears dropped from my eyes onto her elegantly arced wings that would never know the magical flight for which they had been so ingeniously crafted. “I wish I could do something.”

By three o'clock her heart rate had dropped from the hummingbird’s usual resting rate of two hundred fifty beats per minute to less than one hundred. When it slowed to around sixty I could no longer tell if the light pulse I felt in my hand was hers or mine. As I sat gently stroking her head with my index finger and watching her miniature white eyelashes blink heavily, I felt as if something inside me was slipping away with her. Finally, her tiny vibration diminished to almost nothing. Ten minutes later, her eyes closed for the last time, and she was gone. And I no longer was, or ever again would be, that unflappable genius who could miraculously save anything that came her way. It was not that I hadn’t seen something die before. I grew up on a Midwestern farm where death was everywhere and often, to my unending horror, intentional. But this was the first time I had been entrusted with saving a life, and I had failed completely. All of my self-assurance and bravado shattered to pieces on the hard concrete floor that starless night in the middle of March. And something else crept in and took its place: a gnawing anxiety tugging at the edges of my psyche that I couldn’t quite bring to consciousness and that I wouldn’t come to grips with until two years later.

Eventually it happens to everyone. Every rehabber suffers an early loss that won’t let go. This young Anna’s was mine. But losing her didn’t make me brick up my heart and run for the exit. Instead, watching her die so unnecessarily hardened my resolve and made me promise, as I watched her tiny spark fade into the darkness, to save hundreds of unlucky victims like her. It was a vow I would make good on that summer, and the next, and the next several years after that. But my smooth-sailing confidence had run aground on nature’s rocky shoreline, and the recovery would prove a long one.

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Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood, by Terry Masear, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $16.77. Buy it at Barnes&Noble.