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A Hummingbird Mother’s Day

By Sy Montgomery

Mother’s Day always gave me pause.

I loved my mother. I was grateful for all the dreary sacrifices she made until finally I grew up. I never failed to send a card. Now that she’s gone, I often make a point of sending cards to friends who are mothers. After all, Mother’s Day is all about obligation, right?

But when I was, myself, a child, I learned about human overpopulation, and chose not to have kids. I have never regretted the decision. Hence my problem with Mother’s Day: while certainly we should be grateful to our mothers, it seems misguided to dedicate a holiday to making more and more humans at a time the Earth is overrun with our kind.

Baby Hummingbird

But my feelings about Mother’s Day changed forever when, two years ago, I met two tiny infants.

They were hummingbirds.

They were found, nearly dead, in a cuplike nest as small as a coin in diameter. They had .hatched from eggs the size of Navy beans and were born the size of bumblebees. They were pink, naked and blind, their beaks yellow, stubby and soft. No one knew what had happened to their mother. But when the couple who found the babies phoned WildCare, the local wildlife rehabilitation center in San Rafael, they knew just what to do: WildCare called my friend Brenda Sherburn. Brenda specializes in raising orphaned baby hummingbirds. I flew from New Hampshire to California help her.

Hummingbird in Nest

Raising baby hummingbirds is a herculean task even for a mother hummingbird.

When I first saw them, the babies were less than an inch and a half long. Their feathers were merely quills. Brenda had them in an incubator, snuggled beak-to-tail in their nest, which was resting on a pedestal fashioned from the cardboard core of a toilet paper roll atop a carpet of tissues inside a plastic utility basket. They were dazzlingly tiny, perfect and vulnerable.

Even with a mother bird to care for them, hummingbirds face monstrous perils. The mother may have to leave the nest up to 200 times a day to gather enough food for her babies. And while she’s gone, fire ants and yellow jackets can sting the babies to death in the nest. Bass may leap from ponds to gulp them whole. Hawks, jays, roadrunners, opossums, raccoons, even dragonflies and praying mantids eat them. They can die of cold. They can die of heat. They can die of infestations of mites. And they will certainly die if they’re alone.

But these babies aren’t alone now, and Brenda knows exactly what they need: 200 fruit flies. They’re best caught fresh (though you can order them from a pet supply house, Brenda prefers them wild). They must be crushed with a mortar and pestle, then mixed with a special nectar supplemented with vitamins, enzymes and oils in precise combinations. The mixture spoils easily and must be mixed fresh several times a day. This food must be delivered into the babies desperately gaping mouths by syringe—every 20 minutes from dawn to dusk.

Magnifying Glass

The baby hummingbirds are so small that Brenda Sherburn examines them with a magnifying glass.

Carefully Brenda shows me how to fill the syringe, and how to thread a thin catheter into the babies’ mouths and down their throats. I am, of course, petrified. Their feathers are so delicate you can damage them by touching them; their feet are thin as thread. I’m afraid that if I feed them wrong I will damage their mouths or throats. I fear they’ll choke on their food. But it’s even scarier than that. The worst thing you can do, says Brenda, is over-feed them. They can actually pop.

If you miss a feeding by 20 minutes, they can die. Brenda sets a timer so there is no risk we forget. But there is no forgetting. Our days are ruled by inch and a half long baby birds.

Brenda is a professional artist. But there is no way she can work on her sculptures or pastels in 20-minute snippets. Neither can I get much writing done. No way can we fit in a workout at the gym, or even a long phone call to a friend. Our meals change. Before breakfast, one of us grinds coffee beans while the other grinds up fruit flies. Dinners and lunches are always something we can make fast. We interrupt each dinner at least twice to feed the little birds.

“Everything stops for the hummingbirds,” Brenda tells me. That’s why it’s so hard to find volunteers like her to take care of these babies.

I wondered, that first night I spent with them, whether I could commit to such a schedule for any length of time. But then, the next morning, I saw one of the babies stretch a membranous wing out to preen it with a stubby bill. Tissue paper is like armor in comparison to that wing, and an eggshell is a fortress compared to the blooming feathers and gossamer skin shielding this minute nestling from all the evils of the world.

Hummingbird Reaching for Food

And yet—then, before my astonished eyes, a tiny bird stood up in its nest and tested its wings, whirring them with a concentrated ferocity. How can someone so fragile be so fearless? How can this bird summon a resting heartbeat of 500 times a minute, revving to 1,500 times a minute when, one day, God willing, it can fly?

And then I knew for sure. Yes, I would do anything—anything—to protect these precious nestlings who have fallen into our care. And at last I understood, I think, how to celebrate the bottomless devotion of motherhood.

Mother’s Day doesn’t have to be about making more humans. And Motherhood doesn’t have to be all about dreary obligation. Raising these orphaned babies—and weeks later, setting them free—never felt like sacrifice.

It felt like joy.

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