After finding two abandoned baby hummingbirds, Michael must work hard to keep them alive
It was a lazy day in the month of May when I got that so-memorable phone call from my sometimes-bothersome twin sister, May.
“Michael, hurry, hurry, come over!” screamed my sister, who was practicing tennis with Mom at a nearby tennis court.
“Why? I’m busy!” I shouted back.
“There’s two baby birds on the court. I think they’re still alive.”
My ears perked up, and instantaneously my irritating sister became my wonderful sibling. “I’m coming right now!”
I dragged Dad off the couch and made him drive me to the tennis courts. When we arrived, I saw Mom and May standing over two orphaned rufous hummingbirds, barely a week old. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was my first time seeing hummingbird nestlings.
They were only about the size of a stick of gum, pink-colored, and naked, with eyes closed. They shivered and ruffled what little down they had, trying to shelter from the ocean breeze. Delicately, I cupped them into the palm of my hand while using my other hand to block the wind.
It was so nerve-racking to hold something so small and delicate. After gently placing the nestlings into a small insect cage padded with tissue paper, I began looking for their nest, hoping to find their mother, who was probably frantically seeking her young ones out.
Along the boundary of the tennis court was a ten-foot-tall chain-link fence with ivy covering it from top to bottom. The ivy had grown thick, and probably hadn’t been cut back in years, which would make finding their home, a nest about the size of silver dollar, an almost impossible task.
But the “needle in a haystack” chance of finding their nest didn’t deter me. I desperately wanted these little nestlings to live. I searched everywhere—every branch, nook, and cranny of ivy along the borders of the tennis court.
After a couple of nerve-racking hours, I finally found the nest. It was located high up near the tree canopy, where neither my father, who is six-foot, three inches tall, nor I could reach. But mother bird was nowhere to be found.
I even tried to stand still and listen for the chirping sounds of their mother trying to call to her babies. Not a peep. The mother had probably given up.
Looking at Dad, I commanded, “I’m taking them home. I’ll raise them.” Realizing I wouldn’t take no for an answer, Dad reluctantly nodded. He was tired. I was excited.
A New Home
I gently carried the two fledglings to my “bug room,” where I keep hundreds, maybe thousands, of various beetle specimens I’ve found in such exotic places as Japan, Thailand, Fiji, and Arizona. I’m a full-fledged, card-carrying amateur entomologist. Maybe now I’ll double as an ornithologist.
By chance, I had found an old hummingbird nest some months back while hunting for mantids on tree bark. What a coincidence that I could actually put it to good use. I slipped the two pebble-sized nestlings into the nest and delicately laid a collection of twigs and branches in an eight-inch, square insect cage that I previously used to store my live Coleoptera (beetles) collection. It was now a makeshift birdcage.
Once settled, the larger of the two nestlings opened its beak, spread its tiny, skeletal wings, and began chirping wildly. The second one followed. I panicked. What do hummingbirds eat?
I frantically searched the internet. There wasn’t much information on hummingbird care, but I found one video describing that fledglings would happily gulp down a four-part water to one-part sugar solution supplemented with protein-rich insects. I whisked up the sugar water and luckily already had live mealworms that I use to feed my predatory insects.
The moment of truth. Feast or famine, literally. I dipped the syringe into the sugar water and held it in front of the larger chick. It quickly darted its head out of the nest and grabbed onto the syringe as I slowly squeezed the nectar into its beak. After a few gulps, the chick seemed content, closed its eyes, and went to sleep. The second one followed and did the same.
It actually worked! I rejoiced. This was my first big step toward becoming a bird whisperer. Things were looking positive.
The next day I offered the chicks some mealworm gut, which they ferociously ate up in seconds. Another milestone accomplished!
This became our routine for the next couple of days, from seven in the morning to nine at night. Dad pitched in too, taking care of the birds when I was at school. I’d enter the bug room just about every half an hour and the nestlings would burst into screeching chirps, beaks wide open and wings flapping. A couple squirts of nectar and a few pieces of mealworm guts satisfied their hunger. They’d quiet down and fade into a drunken sleep.
A Near-Death Experience
Five days had passed, and except for school, I hadn’t left home once, ignoring various family outings like movie night or visits to Grandma and choosing to stick to my strict feeding and care regiment. They grew bigger, started to grow more feathers. My hard work was paying off.
“You have to go out to eat this time! Grandma’s going too!” screamed May. “All you do is sit around and feed the stupid birds.”
No way am I going to get out of this one, I thought to myself. But who would feed them? Could they last more than an hour without food? I was in panic mode.
I had a great idea. I’d overfeed the fledglings so they’d last until I returned home from dinner. Just before getting into the car, I fed them several times their normal doses of nectar and mealworms.
Honk, honk. “Hurry-up! Get in the car,” yelled Dad.
Running out of time, I noticed their food crops, the pouch in a bird’s neck that stores food, fill up and appear grotesquely enlarged. The fledglings looked to be choking as they tried to digest the sugar and proteins. Oh man! I might have killed them.
I didn’t say a word during dinner, had no appetite for my shrimp tempura, and didn’t bother to order dessert (a first for me). I kept staring at my dad’s watch, wondering if I’d ever see my two babies alive again.
That dinner was the most agonizing three hours I’ve ever experienced. Finally, after watching my sister gobble down two scoops of vanilla ice cream, Dad asked for the check.
The usual thirty-minute ride home seemed like hours. Each traffic light stop was just another nail in the coffin for the fledglings. Finally, the car screeched into the driveway. Darting out of the car, I could hear my heart beating a thousand times a minute. I gasped for air, opened the bug room door, and quietly tiptoed in the dark toward the cage. I could catch their dark shadows. They appeared dead, listless.
I started crying. What an idiot I was!
Wanting to make sure, I looked closer and could barely make out their chest feathers palpitating in sync with their heartbeats. They were still alive! But how much alive?
I turned the lights on. They awoke, necks popping up, and began their usual routine of chirping, wing-flapping, and beaks opening. It was music to my ears. I was once again at peace with myself. The bird whisperer and his birds lived on.
Out of the Nest
After a week, the fledglings started flapping their wings but still couldn’t fly. They became more restless and even hopped onto the sides of the nest.
Soon after, the birds became more daring, climbing out of the comforts of their nest and perching on one of the thicker twigs off to the side of the cage. It was amazing, like seeing a baby walk for the first time. I extended my finger onto the perch, and they quickly darted toward my finger. It was a marvelous sight!
Each day brought a new experience, for both me and the fledglings. Soon, they were able to flutter around the room with ease. The insect cage was now too small, so I moved them into a larger butterfly cage previously used to breed monarch butterflies. They were happy, buzzing, floating, and chirping in their new, upgraded environs.
On a hot and muggy June day, I thought the siblings might like some sun. I gently carried the butterfly mesh to the backyard. Edging my index finger under their legs, they anxiously jumped on and, not wanting to frighten them, I slowly backed my finger out of the mesh.
Being accustomed to shelter, they seemed apprehensive at first, but slowly acclimated to their new environment. They were curious about the wind, the sun, the other singing birds, and the vast, boundaryless sky. It was a whole new world to them.
Then suddenly, without warning, the two rufouses took flight. About ten feet away, they landed on my mother’s favorite lemon tree. I approached them while raising my index finger, hoping they would hop on. They flew off again to a nearby rosebush. I approached. They took off again. Still only a few weeks old, the fledglings wouldn’t last on their own; they still needed their mother’s assistance for food. I panicked, again.
They were curious about the wind, the sun, the other singing birds, and the vast, boundaryless sky. It was a whole new world to them.
We played hide-and-seek a few more times before I came to my senses and realized I needed a new plan.
Using my giant insect net, I spotted one of the birds on a cement fence. Swoop! The bird fell helplessly into the net. I released it back into the mesh cage.
Catching the second rufous turned out to be a harder task. It became difficult to make visual contact with the bird as the sun was setting. I just heard its cheep. The Santa Ana winds didn’t help either, as they dispersed the chirping sounds. All day long I went from tree to bush to flower trying to recover my friend.
Finally, the bird tired and settled on a pine tree. I used my net but missed miserably. It flew off, and I thought I had lost my only chance. Then suddenly it came back again, perched on a plum tree. I swung again. Strike two.
Now for sure I wasn’t going to get a third chance, but it appeared again, this time on a sagebrush. As the sun was setting below the horizon, I knew this was my last chance. I swung as fast as I could. Yes! I got it. Relieved, I placed my fine-feathered friend back in the butterfly mesh.
Off They Go
Another week had passed, and the fledglings now looked like full-grown adults. Their downy fur had matured into sharp, well-defined feathers. Their pale-green feathers turned to a mix of turquoise green and bright yellow.
It was time. I knew this day would come. I dreaded it. But in some way, I was also happy to know that they would return to the wild where they truly belonged.
In the backyard, I unzipped the butterfly mesh. They did absolutely nothing and remained perched. I guess they too were dreading this day. I gently coaxed them out with some nectar. After a few gulps, they stayed for a while on my mother’s lemon tree. At times they even begged for food, and I happily obliged.
Dusk was falling. I saw both birds fly up and find a good roost up in a pine tree.
The next day passed, and I was surprised to see the birds still here. They were in my father’s garden, sipping flowers. However, as I approached them, they flew off into a tree. From time to time during the next few days, I saw the birds. At times they were catching insects or drinking sugary nectar.
After a week in the wild, the birds stopped coming. I don’t know what happened to them, but I’m sure they’re doing well. Will they come back to visit me? I hope so.