Audubon in Action

Meet Shep, Atlanta Audubon’s New Educational Ambassador

He can’t fly, but he can teach—a talent that will serve him well in his fancy new role.

This is Shep, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. He's curious, tough, and a big fan of bathtime. But he's also flightless. While coasting down the streets of Atlanta last year, he hit a window on a school and broke his wing. Thankfully, unlike dozens of other Ruby-throats, the most common victim of glass collisions in the southeastern city, Shep lived to tell the tale—and teach a lesson.

Just weeks ago, Shep was adopted by Atlanta Audubon as the chapter’s new educational ambassador. Perched inside a glass terrarium decked out with native plants and textured perches, he helps enlighten visitors on the threats birds face, from collisions to pesticides.

“I think he’s going to do a lot of good for a lot of people,” says Melanie Furr, education director at Atlanta Audubon.

In addition to educating people how to protect birds, Furr has volunteered for the last eight years as a certified rehabber at AWARE Wildlife Center. There she has cared for everything from clingy baby opossums to husky Red-tailed Hawks. The work is fulfilling, but it can be taxing; not every rescue is a success story, she says.

So, when a young male hummingbird with a badly healed wing was admitted to AWARE last October, euthanasia seemed to be the only option. After considering her work with Audubon, though, Furr had another idea: Why not adopt him?

It would be a labor of love: The bird had to be nursed on nectar, bathed, and monitored constantly. And it wasn’t like there was a manual for raising such delicate creatures. “I don’t know anyone who owns a hummingbird,” Furr says. On the flip side, she was a skilled rehabilitator, and he had the temperament of an educational ambassador—calm yet charismatic. And he was downright adorable.

Finally, in December, Furr took the first steps toward formal adoption. “Nothing makes an impression on people of all ages and sparks curiosity like seeing a wild animal up close,” she wrote in her application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which overseas possession of migratory birds.

Four months later, Furr got the news that she was officially the bird's custodian. Now, she just needed to give him a name. In the same week, she led a birding retreat at the Shepherd Center, a nonprofit hospital for patients with physical disabilities. When she eagerly spilled the news about her avian adoptee, one of the patients suggested she name him “Shepherd.” 

“It resonated with me,” Furr says. “There are these people who have lost their mobility, and there’s this bird that’s lost his.”

Since being adopted, Shep has regained strength, along with some of his signature ruby colora sign of good health and growth. “His throat feathers are really coming in,” says Adam Betuel, director of conservation at Atlanta Audubon. “He now seems a bit more [physically] capable.”

Much of the recovery is thanks to Furr, who has hummingbird care down to a simple equation. Hand feedings on the hour; regular swaps of fresh native plants; and baths once a day when it’s warm. The latter consists of her spritzing a leaf and letting Shep shake his tail feathers all over it. “He figured it out really quickly,” she says. “They’re smart birds for something that has a brain the size of a large piece of sand.” When she can, Furr also tries to switch up the scenery. “He likes to ride in the car,” she adds.

 

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While glass no longer poses a threat to Shep, it still endangers close to 100 species in Atlanta. According to Project Safe Flight, an initiative to record collisions across North American cities, 1,000 birds have died there from window strikes during spring and fall migration since 2016. Nearly a tenth of those were Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

That’s what makes Shep such an important ambassador, Betuel notes. “The biggest problem with window collisions is just education,” he says. “When people found out the staggering number of collisions each year, almost everyone is stunned.”

Once the awareness is there, the immediate fixes are surprisingly simple. For starters, turn off the lights before heading home after work or school, Betuel says. Most migratory species travel at night when bright buildings can be confusing and disorienting. Decals and window treatments can also make glass seem less transparent to birds (Furr plans to put CollidEscape tape on Shep’s terrarium for demonstration).

Though Shep is the new face in town, he’s already turning heads. Many people have never seen a hummingbird up close, Furr says. The first comment is always about how small he is.” But as soon as they know more about him, they're eager to find Ruby-throats around their own homes.

Not to say Shep isn't one of a kind; much of Furr’s recent Instagrams are dedicated to him. A quick spin through her posts, and it's easy to see why anyone would make him the center of their universe.

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