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A Hummingbird Story

Story and illustration by Karen Slote




It was June 23, 2023. The middle of the busy season. Orphaned baby bats were arriving daily who required round-the-clock feedings, and people were bringing me other misfortunate wild animals who needed help. A fellow rehabilitator was trying to arrange a rescue of a couple baby ruby-throated hummingbirds. Hours later, there was still no word on when they would be arriving, but after finding out that the finders of the baby hummingbirds were nearby and close enough for me to get there and back without missing any feedings, I offered to run over and get them myself. I am really glad I did!


I pulled into the parking lot at the address I was given and luckily found the people as they were about to depart! Another miscommunication narrowly averted. The husband and wife pulled out a small plastic bowl that contained material from a mouse nest, a damaged hummingbird nest, and 2 tiny black lumps buried within the fluff. I didn’t even see them at first. They blended in very well, with tiny tufts of downy feathers coming in that barely covered their backs, masking their identity among the white cottony bedding. These were the youngest hummingbirds I had ever seen! I was estimating that they were only a couple days old - mere hatchlings. The finders went on to tell me how they were pruning an evergreen tree when they accidentally cut the branch with the hummingbird nest. They tried putting them back for the mother hummingbird to feed, but the nest was damaged and the babies kept falling out. So for the past 24 hours they had been trying to feed them sugar water with a cut off metal hypodermic needle and a 3cc syringe. Not ideal for babies this young, but somehow they were still alive. Now to get them back home so I could assess them further and get them warmed up. 


 

During the ride back, I contemplated my new challenge. Several years ago, I attempted to care for a baby hummingbird that was about the same age as these 2 little ones. That story did not have a happy ending. The hatchling did not survive long enough for me to even identify what kind of bird it was. I was crushed when that first little one passed away, but I was determined to do better this time. As soon as I arrived home I brought these two little nuggets down to “the office” - the pop-up camper my husband had set up in the backyard as a seasonal refuge where I could take care of my avian patients. The incubator was already warmed to between 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit, and I gently extracted the pair from the mouse fluff, nestled them into their nest, and popped them inside to warm up.


Hummingbird nests are amazing! The female hummingbird is solely responsible for nest making. Her nest construction often begins with a single pliable rootlet that is wrapped around the branch to be used as an anchor. Spider webs and plant fibers are weaved into the rootlet and the nest is built up from there. The inner cup is made of the softest materials including plant fibers, thistle and dandelion down, and animal fur, but the nest as a whole has incredible structural integrity when intact. The soft inner materials are tightly bound together with spider webbing and then adorned with lichens stuck on with pine sap that make the nest nearly invisible. The mother hummingbird sits in the nest and molds it to her body, making it just the right size for the 2 miniature eggs and hatchlings. As they grow, the nest will stretch and grow with them! 


When I went back to check on the babies, I only saw one. The second one had slipped down through the hole and was buried under the first. Even though I tried to cradle the nest inside a knitted nest which was held up by a small ceramic bowl, the nest just wouldn’t hold them. That was no good. But I really wanted to keep the babies in their own nest. Mama hummingbird had already created this perfect little home for her babies – I just needed to repair it. So I found some soft braided suture material and sewed the cottony fluff back together the best I could. 


It was no match for spider web! The nest was still floppy and needed to be propped up to keep it sturdy enough to hold the tiny ones, but it worked. They snuggled in next to each other and for the first time, seemed comfortable and stopped struggling.


 

Now that they were settled and warm, I had to figure out a way to feed these tiny mouths and provide the proper diet. Initially I started offering tiny drops of water on the tip of their beaks. Before any food can be offered, they must be hydrated and passing stool. There is a misconception by some people that hummingbirds drink only nectar and sugar water, but this is far from the truth. Hummingbirds derive a large part of their diet from insects, and this source of protein is even more important for hatchlings and nestlings. Hatchlings will have to grow strong, perfectly formed feathers in a short period of time in order to perform the flight maneuvers of an adult hummingbird. Weak and damaged feathers will result if the proper nutrition is not provided at any point in this critical time period. A hummingbird that cannot fly well will not survive. 


Years ago, with my first tiny hatchling, I was at a loss on how to get food into the tiny mouth. The hatchling hummingbird is approximately the size of a bumblebee, so you can imagine how tiny the beak is! Their tiny waving heads and inconsistent opening of their beaks make this extra difficult. All newly hatched birds are fed insects, so I knew this would be an important component of the diet. But trying to hold a tiny fruit fly on some forceps, and then managing to insert the food inside the small moving target had proved very difficult. When I had too many failed attempts, the hatchling eventually stopped gaping and I had to wait until he decided to open his mouth for food again. That miniature beak was too small and delicate to manually open. I worry that with my first attempt, I was not able to get enough food into the rapidly growing baby. So this time, I needed a different feeding plan.


I was hoping for a complete formula where the insects were included in the liquid diet, as trying to feed insects separately had given me problems. After researching several resources, I found a diet formulated specifically for hummingbird hatchlings and nestlings [1]. The formula consisted of ground up fruit flies, a very specific high protein liquid diet, a small amount of sugar, and 2 different mixtures of vitamins and calcium. The diet would spoil easily, so I had to make it fresh daily and keep it refrigerated during the day, while allowing a small amount to warm up before each feeding. In order to more easily get the food into those tiny mouths, I would have to learn from mama hummingbird. Mama hummingbird feeds her new babies very small insects and nectar that she collects and carries in her crop. She gently inserts her long, narrow beak down the throat of her young as they vigorously jiggle their heads up and down to swallow the regurgitated food. Researching what other rehabilitators have used, I chose a 20 gauge IV catheter to use as my “beak”. This was rigid enough so it wouldn’t bend, but soft and smooth enough so it wouldn’t injure their mouths. It was still pretty scary trying to hold steady enough as they bounced! I held my elbow on the table and was very careful to not hurt them. Very quickly, feeding the little ones became second nature. I did get a lot of practice! Those little mouths wanted food every 20-30 minutes from sunrise to sunset. And like the mama hummingbird, I was their sole provider.


Transitioning them to a human-made formula took some time. I had to monitor that the food going in was passing out of the crop, then getting digested properly and exiting as normal poop. The crop is a little pouch in the esophagus of a bird that holds food before it passes to the stomach. In these nestling hummingbirds, the crop could be seen right through the skin on their necks. Initially it seemed like those ground up fruit flies were staying in the crop too long; when I came back to feed them after 20 minutes, the crop was still full. Knowing that hydration is essential for digestion and processing of food, I started giving one drop (.05cc) of the formula followed by one drop of filtered warm water. In addition, I supplemented them with a dab of bird benebac on the feeding catheter daily to provide beneficial gut bacteria. This seemed to do the trick! They babies started gaping for food more strongly and more regularly after the first couple days. Everything started functioning as it should. These tiny birds were even able to launch their poop over the edge of the nest and onto the walls of the incubator - a nifty trick to keep their nest clean!


 

I was not expecting them to live past the first day, so I was hesitant to name them at first; but now they seemed to be thriving, and I was spending so much time with them I could even notice distinct personalities. When I showed them to my husband, he said that those weren’t birds, those were dots! And so they became Dot and Speck. I didn’t know their gender initially, but as they developed their plumage I could tell they were both female. The feathers on the throat of females are pure white, while the feathers of young males have dark spots that later become the glistening ruby-throat. Dot was the calmer older sister, and Speck was the little ball of energy. Hummingbird eggs generally hatch 1-2 days apart so one will be smaller and developmentally behind than the other. But even when they were both fully feathered and the same size, I could tell them apart by their demeanor. 


Keeping their tiny faces and feathers clean was incredibly difficult but of utmost importance. One tiny fruit fly or some sticky formula could clog up a nostril, scratch an eye, cause a skin infection or damage feathers. They were always very excited at feeding time and their heads would flail around searching for food. If I accidentally deposited some food as the little mouth was moving away, I would need to clean it off quickly before it dried on and caused problems. This was no easy task! Removing food from feathers over their backs could generally be accomplished without magnification, but to clean off tiny mouths, beaks and eyes, I would clip a small 15x magnifying lens onto my glasses. I had to be so careful to get the gunk off without hurting them, especially since they didn’t always cooperate and hold still. Even a cotton swab was much too large to accurately pick off material, and the cotton fluff would come undone and could get stuck in their little tongues. By some miracle, I found some triangular sponges with a handle (surgical eye spears) in my collection of rehabilitation supplies that were given to me by a chimney swift rehabilitator long ago. These tiny sponges were like magic. They did not fray like the cotton swabs and had a very fine tip that could be directed to the exact spot needed to clean their delicate little faces. But I could only do so much, and luckily I had some help with the cleaning process. From a very young age, birds begin using their beaks to preen their feathers; keeping them clean and aligned properly. Preening of feathers is something that can only be accomplished by the birds themselves. However, if I gently misted them with water, I could stimulate them to preen and help them to clean up some of the material I could not remove myself. They would flap and arrange their feathers and even loved to clean their beaks on the tiny sponges - bath time was always fun!


 

My pictures of Dot and Speck were labeled starting with day 1, the day they came to me. But looking back at pictures of ruby-throated hummingbird development in nature, I estimate that Dot was 4 days old and Speck was 3 days old on arrival. On day 1 of care, they both were completely bald other than the sparse, cream-colored fluff on their backs. Their eyes were closed and they had short yellow beaks. But there were subtle differences. Speck had smooth skin where Dot had some bumps where pin feathers would soon be growing. And Dot’s beak was slightly longer in comparison. But each day brought something new - they grew and changed so quickly! By day 3 they both had tiny nubs of pin feathers extending beyond the skin, and by day 4 their beaks were more elongated and darker. On day 6 they looked like they were covered in tiny white porcupine quills, and by day 7 their eyes were opening.


Things seemed to progress even more quickly after that! Tail and flight feathers were becoming evident on day 9 and their body feathers began to open and show the first hint of green by day 11. Flapping, stretching and attempts to move around soon followed, which took a toll on the nest. The original nest was never as sturdy since being torn from the branch weeks ago. Pieces of cottony fluff would come off as Dot and Speck shuffled about, and the fluff would get stuck in their toes and beaks. The original nest had done a wonderful job of cradling the nestlings when they were tiny, but now a new nest was needed. Luckily someone had knitted me a nest just the right size for larger hummingbird nestlings, and on day 14 they took up residence here. 

By day 14 the girls were fully feathered and it was also time for an updated enclosure and some new formula. Up until this point, they stayed in the incubator 24 hours a day, but now that they were feathered and could regulate their body temperature, I wanted them to be in the sunshine, and to be exposed to more sights, sounds and smells. During the day I kept them in a small mesh tent with clippings of salvia blooms and a view out the screened camper window so they could see and hear the birds living in the area. In the evening, they went back into the incubator since it did get colder in the camper at night. I also wanted to wean them on to a balanced formula made for fledgling and adult hummingbirds [2]. This formula was a liquid consistency and could be lapped up from a feeder like an adult hummingbird would drink sugar water. A digestible liquid high-protein formula was mixed with sugar water and other supplements to provide all essential nutrients needed for this stage of growth. This formula doesn’t spoil quite as rapidly as the nestling formula, but it still must be made up daily. To prevent wasting too much formula, small quantities were frozen in ice cube trays, thawed as needed, and offered in small Nek-tar feeders. 


The girls didn’t know what to do when presented with this new feeder - they wanted me to continue depositing the food into their mouth and would just open their beaks instead of drinking. Dot caught on first and finally stuck out her tongue and got a taste of the liquid. She seemed to really like it! This was the first time she actually tasted the food. Until now, the food had bypassed her tongue and went straight down her throat. Speck was a little slower in catching on, but she would occasionally take a drink when Dot was drinking. The 2 sisters would poke the tip of their beaks into the formula, side by side, and drink together. For the next several days I would hold the feeder for them to drink and then supplement with the nestling formula until they were drinking well. But it didn’t take long. Soon I was able to balance the feeder in front of them so they could feed themselves whenever they were hungry.


 

It was day 18 and Dot and Speck looked all grown up! Their flight feathers were grown in and they were exercising their wings more frequently; buzzing but not quite getting airborne yet. Dot was venturing out of the nest and would perch on the stem of their cut flowers. By the next day, she was flying! This was the beginning of her freedom. Since she was eating on her own, she no longer had any need for me. I wasn’t able to easily catch her, so I had to move her to a bigger enclosure so she could buzz around and do her hummingbird thing. I set up a larger screen tent complete with live flowering plants, then I hung up the special feeder and positioned a coated wire perch in front so Dot could easily drink her formula.


I moved Speck to the larger enclosure with Dot, even though she hadn’t made it out of the nest yet. At the time, I didn’t think too much of this delay - she was a little younger than Dot. I laid the stem of one of the flowers across the nest so she would get some practice gripping and perching while being tempted to fledge by her bigger sister. Then on day 20, one day after Dot, Speck was flying! I set up the second feeder so they each had their own place to perch and feed. They each seemed to choose the feeder they preferred and would buzz around and expertly land on their respective perches. They both were doing an amazing job flying around, but Speck was having some issues perching - her left foot wasn’t gripping strongly and kept slipping off the perch. She was having difficulty balancing and put her left wing out to the side to help support her weight. There was definitely a problem with the leg, and this may have been why she stayed in the nest for so long. 


Hummingbirds belong to the order apodiformes, which means “unfooted birds.” They do actually have feet, but they are incredibly tiny and difficult to see! So trying to figure out what was going on once again required some magnification. I held Speck’s wing out of the way to get a picture of her leg, then zoomed in to find the problem - a broken tibiotarsus! I was so sad that she hurt herself on my watch - and I didn’t even know what happened. At least the fractured leg bone only seemed bent and not displaced, so there was a good chance I could fix it. But this was easier said than done. Repair of this fracture required working on a miniscule bone with an uncooperative hummingbird. I had to do some creative taping! Using tiny strips of paper tape, I placed one piece on either side of the leg and squeezed it together. This acted like a splint to keep the fracture aligned. Then to keep the leg stable and in the proper position, another piece of tape was attached to the splint and wrapped up around the body. After a couple adjustments, it seemed like the leg was positioned properly. I let Speck rest in my hand for a few moments, then I let her out in the flight area and watched her fly up to the perch. She immediately started using that foot and was gripping normally like nothing ever happened! I added supplemental calcium to the formula to help the bone to heal, and Speck continued to use her foot. This injury was not slowing her down! She only left the tape on for about 4 days before she decided to remove it herself, and by this point, the fracture was already healed. The metabolism of a young, growing hummingbird is so high that healing occurs very rapidly. Crisis averted!


 

What hummingbirds lack in size, they make up for with attitude. Out in the real world, they will need to fight for resources and territory, and they start practicing early! Once Dot and Speck were out of the nest and flying, I noticed some sibling rivalry. The sisters would engage in airborne combat. Speck appeared to be the instigator, but Dot wasn’t backing down. It got to the point where there was more fighting than sitting quietly and eating. I was worried there would be another injury with all the fighting, so I set them up in separate, but adjacent enclosures. They could still see each other and talk to each other, but for the next couple days, they would be able to eat, get strong, and practice flying without the stress of constantly being attacked. 


Dot and Speck were flying strongly in their smaller enclosures and their feathers were completely grown in. It was time for them to move outside to the large flight enclosure. This 10 foot by 8 foot screened and predator-proof area was set up with everything they would need to practice foraging. I set up a dozen potted plants full of tube-like flowers on a table. This would help the young hummingbirds perfect their hovering skills in order to drink nectar in all different situations. In addition, insects are a huge part of a hummingbird’s diet. Hummingbirds are aerial insectivores and need to snap small flying insects out of the air while in flight. In order to provide tiny flying insects, I set out a bucket of rotting fruit soaked in apple cider vinegar to attract fruit flies several weeks earlier. I placed a mesh cover over the bucket to prevent the hummingbirds from entering, with holes large enough to allow the fruit flies to get in and out. When there were lots of fruit flies inside, I quickly put the lid on, moved the bucket inside the enclosure, then removed the lid, leaving only the mesh. I would just need to tap on the bucket and the fruit flies would fly out. Finally, in addition to the special feeders with their formula, I added a couple sugar water feeders from my yard so they would recognize these structures as a food source. I would move these back outside after the girls were released. 


Once everything was set up, I brought them both outside. Dot and Speck flew out of their small carrier and began to explore. With the extra space and the abundance of foraging opportunities, there was very little bickering, and they both just did their own thing. I couldn’t believe how beautiful and perfect they were. I just stood in awe… how could those 2 dots that came to me have become spectacular flying jewels. The full-grown sisters instinctively knew what to do. They went for the flowers first; Dot gravitated toward the deep purple salvia and Speck preferred the bee balm. After watching them enjoy the flowers for quite a while, I nudged the bucket and a swarm of fruit flies emerged. They immediately flew after the insects and tried to grab them. This was a little more difficult - they needed some more practice to become more efficient hunters. But this too would come. In addition to foraging practice, they had to preen and make sure their feathers were in perfect condition in order for them to perform their flight maneuvers, fly long distances, and not get soggy when out in the rain. As they buzzed around my head, I would mist them with a water bottle. The misting would stimulate preening, keep them cool in the summer heat, and also help me check to make sure their feathers were waterproof. When feathers are not waterproof, instead of the drops of water rolling right off the surface of the feather, the water will collect between the feather barbs and make the bird heavy and wet. A hummingbird with dirty or damaged feathers will slowly drop to the ground after being misted, being unable to stay airborne. Luckily this didn’t happen! Dot and Speck just flew by, a little irritated that I was spraying them, but completely unphased by the water. They stayed in the large enclosure for the next 2 weeks while getting stronger, acclimating to weather conditions, checking out the surroundings, meeting their new neighbors, and learning the skills they needed to be successful in the world.


 

By the time they were ready to be released, Dot and Speck were much too elusive for me to capture. But this was good - no self-respecting, healthy hummingbird would allow a human to catch them! Luckily the enclosure had an escape hatch; a small door close to the roof that could be opened to allow a soft-release into my yard. Release day was chosen based on the weather and the outdoor conditions. This summer, not only did I have to work around temperature, wind and rain, but also poor air quality from the wildfires in Canada (luckily they created an app that would help forecast air quality too!) I would look for 3 consecutive suitable days in the forecast to pick the date. On release day morning, I woke up early and added fresh formula to the feeders, made sure they were eating plenty of fruit flies, and misted them to make sure their feathers were perfect for the big day. I wanted to give them time to fill up in the morning, but also wanted them to have as much of the day as possible to be out and exploring before nightfall. So after a couple hours and time for breakfast, I opened the escape hatch. Nothing happened immediately, but Speck seemed more excited by this new hole in the wall. She was buzzing around, trying to figure out the significance of the pure sunlight entering her space. I quietly backed out of the enclosure and watched from outside, not wanting to cause any commotion and force them to leave before they were ready. I wasn’t watching for more than 10 minutes when I saw a blur of green fly out the opening and up into a maple tree. I tried to spot my first brave hummingbird with no luck. But I was happy she was in a safe place and so well-camouflaged. I waited several minutes for the second sister to emerge, but all was quiet inside. I got a stool and peeked into the hole to find Dot sitting by her preferred feeder. Maybe she was happy to have the place all to herself, or maybe she just wasn’t ready yet, so I left her to figure it out while I went back inside to feed baby bats.


About an hour later I came back to check, and the enclosure was empty. Dot and Speck were out on their own in the natural world where they belonged. It is a scary thing and a marvelous thing at the same time. Young ruby-throated hummingbirds have incredible instincts and are hard-wired to be wild; they just need to learn things like where to find food and water, which places are safe to perch and sleep, and how to interact with other hummingbirds. All I could do for them at this point was to make sure that my yard provided everything they needed until they felt that urge to move on and begin migration. I had already been working on creating native plant gardens with flowers utilized by hummingbirds. Bee balm (monarda spp.), cardinal flower (lobelia cardinalis), foxglove beardtongue (penstemon digitalis), trumpet honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens), and swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata) among others are well-established in patches throughout the property. I also moved all the potted plants outside. I use no pesticides because I do not want to poison the birds, the bats or the insects they rely on for food, and I hang feeders filled with sugar water (1 part table sugar to 4 parts water) to supplement their natural diet. By providing this lovely hummingbird buffet, I was hoping Dot and Speck would stay in the area. And they did! The evening of the release, I saw one of my girls at the cardinal flower, then spotted one at the feeder outside my camper. In the following weeks, they were mostly hidden from me as they learned about the world, but I always enjoyed it when they came by to let me know they were ok. 


 

All seemed to be going well. Dot and Speck would come to the flowers or to one of my feeders at least once a day, and sometimes I saw them both together. Usually these encounters involved one sister feeding and the second flying over to chase the first away. The times where they crossed paths never appeared to be overly aggressive. But then something strange happened a week after Dot and Speck were released… as I was watching out the window of my camper, I saw a hummingbird fly to the feeder and lay down on it. A second hummingbird followed moments later and seemed to sit on top of the first. I immediately ran outside. The second hummingbird flew off as I approached, but the first was flat out on the feeder. I picked her up and gently cradled her in my hands as I carried her into the camper. She was weak and having difficulty breathing. Her poop was black and tarry, indicating that there was some internal bleeding. It appeared as if my sad little patient had sustained some sort of trauma. I put her in a soft fleece nest, gave her medication for pain, and offered her sugar water from a syringe several times during the night. The only thing I could do now was to let her rest and hope she would heal.


I am almost positive that this young female hummingbird was my little Dot. She was always the quiet one; I could see where she would be more likely to get bullied. Also there was no patch of feather loss on the left leg that I would have found if this were Speck. The only other hummingbird to frequent my yard that summer was an adult male. A territorial male hummingbird will respond aggressively to immature hummingbirds in his home range, and I had witnessed this one attacking and chasing the sisters on several occasions. My best guess is that he was the cause of Dot’s injuries -- even though I believe Speck was the one who followed Dot to the feeder that night.


 

Dot made it through the night and was perching the next morning, but her breathing was still labored and she was too weak to fly. I balanced her in front of a feeder so she could drink the adult hummingbird formula when she was hungry, then monitored her with a remote video camera. Every day she was a little better; her breathing slowly improved and she began to fly short distances. After a week in care, she was buzzing around strongly and ready to go. Dot had been convalescing in a large tent inside the flight enclosure. This time, when she was given the chance to leave, she didn’t hesitate - she immediately took off out the escape hatch! What a lucky bird - not only did she have a second chance when she was rescued as a hatchling, but now she had a third chance as she was rescued and released once again.


I released Dot and Speck on July 21st and continued to see them foraging together in my yard until September 9th. After all this time, I am hoping they had a safe journey south to wintering grounds in southern Mexico or parts of Central America. Migration is treacherous. These tiny birds make a nonstop flight of more than 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. At any point in their travels there could be a lack of food, a severe storm, a deceptive glass window that appears to be sky, an outdoor kitty who is programmed to attack, or temperatures that are unseasonably cold. The list of hazards is endless.  Survival is even more difficult for a young hummingbird who does not have the experience of an adult. Only 20% of newly fledged birds live to be one year old [3]. But my girls are strong and may have had some extra time to master skills and learn about the world with a guardian watching over them. As a wildlife rehabilitator, that’s all that I can do. The rest is up to them. Have a marvelous adventure my tiny friends!






[1] Promote 

Hatchling/Nestling test diet 1 (for hummingbirds)

Opean Perlman 2021


[2] Promote

Fledgling/Adult test diet 1 (for hummingbirds)

Opean Perlman 2021


[3] Wild Bird Guides. Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Robert Sargent. 1999






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