DISCLAIMER: Handling injured/disoriented animals is risky and a local wildlife rehabilitator or a qualified individual should be contacted if you find an injured wild animal.
While I was digging around Cabin Creek at Grayson Highlands State Park with 55 school kids for dragonfly larvae and any other sort of bugs we could round up and wearing a living, pinching crayfish earring I never would have imagined an hour later I would be cradling the sweetest example of the fragility of life.
Park Interpreter wearing a crayfish earring
After the buses departed for lunch at the picnics, we decided to go eat on the stone slabs outside the office. En route I saw a red-tailed hawk fly across the road just out of sight around the bend. I approached slowly, thinking we may see it on a branch on the other side. But its eyes weren't on a branch; they were honed onto something more pressing. It was perched on the ground, wings splayed out, with a chipmunk or mouse in its beak. I saw one quick rip up of the tiny mammal from its talons. After looking at us for a moment and us looking at it, it flew to a more secluded spot to eat. It was lunchtime for everyone. It was a great sight.
A hawk with lunch
While eating, Scott, from Blue Ridge Discovery Center, casually mentioned, “you've got a hummingbird right behind you.” It seemed odd because I didn't hear the hum of 50 wing beats per second one normally hears when they are in the vicinity.
She was on the ground of this flower bed behind where we were seated. Just as he said he wondered if something was wrong, she made a feeble attempt to move and didn't get far. That’s when we realized she was indeed not in ideal shape.
From the mighty wings of a red-tailed hawk swooping toward its prey to the tiny vibrating wings of an exhausted ruby-throated hummingbird, it was strange and wild to experience both in a matter of minutes.
After watching for a moment, I hopped up and decided to try to put some nectar juice from the hummingbird feeder nearby in my hand and try to get her to slurp some up. I spilt some coming back. I couldn't be sure if she took any of the drops I had, not seeing her tongue. Soon after she tried to fly, landing in a red spruce branch and laying there splayed out in utter exhaustion, not really perched on her feet. She was pitiful.
Ruby-throated hummingbird splayed out on red spruce
Theresa came out at that point and said it might fall and get injured, so we moved her back down. I ever so gently scooped her up. It was the first time I had ever held a hummingbird, all 2-3 grams of her (the standard weight of a U.S. nickel is 5g). She brought out a capful of hummingbird feeder juice. We rubbed a little on her beak, just a tiny bit. Theresa went on to tell us how they'd discovered her stuck in the office. The poor bird had flown around exhausting herself and wound up getting lent and other matter around her feet. Theresa methodically cleaned her tiny feet, removing the debris with tweezers, and they must have sat her outside to rest and recover near where we wound up eating.
I could not believe it. It is amazing to see a hummingbird so close, the metallic green and beautiful iridescence; the bouncing of a fast pulse, and it broke my heart wondering if she would be okay, that tiny little heart quivering for life.
People departed and I stayed with her for a couple hours, feeding her slowly from a cap full of hummingbird feeder juice by gently dipping the end of her beak toward it and watching her feed softly. She was extremely weak, resting, sleeping, and not doing much. I let her rest, offering/feeding her slowly for many intervals.
Someone from the contact station came by and asked what I was doing, since I was perched up on the raised stones shading the bird. I felt funny, but said I felt like a hummingbird mother. She laughed and we talked about it for a minute.
The ruby-throated hummingbird is our smallest bird in Virginia and the East Coast, and one that holds a special place in our culture and hearts. It is so tiny and fragile, yet strong and tenacious in its own delicate way. They fatten up for migration routes testing their fortitude with a 500-mile, non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. The only type of bird that can fly backwards, it is a marvel and extreme of nature.
I mixed in a few columbine flowers here and there, putting the flower tube next to her beak and hoping for some instinctual feeding from the flower, and thought I noticed a stronger response from her. I rotated the flower, letting her get each of the 5 tubes. At first she didn't take much, but with time she took longer and longer gulps with her tongue.
At times holding her, feeling like I was holding iridescent feathery air in her extreme lightness, it was hard to fathom the poor weak thing, its tiny heart beating up to 1,200 times per minute while feeding, along with its tiny lungs and organs and strong arteries able to withstand the desperate vigor and tough fragility of its life. I felt like I was holding the preciousness of life, the beautiful fragility of existence. And I wanted her so bad to live.
Eventually, an hour and a half later, she tried to fly again, after several unsuccessful sputtered wing bursts. She finally flew straight about 3 or 4 feet to the columbines and successfully landed, making me joyful and optimistic.
Hummingbird haphazardly perched on a columbine stem
But then a strong gust of wind blew through and pushed her about upside down, awkwardly still hanging on to the already wobbly stem of a columbine. After watching her remain half upside-down for a short time, reminiscent of something you'd see in a cartoon, I returned her to the ground in the shade and fed her some more, slowly. But she seemed to take more now. I ate one of the sweet columbines myself.
Sometimes we should not intervene in natural affairs, and sometimes we must
The ground is not a safe resting place. I felt even though exhaustion dictates rest, she needed calories and sugar while she rested, and the only way she could get both was me intervening. I hoped she would be rejuvenated after drinking a marked amount of the big cap full I had, plus a few columbines and rest.
I finally, very reluctantly, pulled myself away because I needed to do a flyer run outside the State Park to Whitetop and towards Mouth of Wilson. I had some good conversations with the librarians in Whitetop and at other stops, but I thought about the hummingbird the whole time.
When I returned I wasn't sure if she would be gone, still sitting there recuperating, or covered in ants.
Passing the contact station, I was told the bird was seen after I left, “just sitting there.” I wondered if she was still there.
I rushed over before unloading the vehicle. She was indeed gone, which is the best I could have hoped for. When Julie and I left the office a little later I saw a hummingbird fly from the other patch of columbines to the red spruce tree. I’d like to think it is her, and the odds are high. I sure hope she survives. She was so fragile and weak and precious right next to me, so graceful and pure. And thanks to a team effort by multiple good people putting care and concern towards this hummingbird, she shall probably see another sunrise.
I normally look at death of a wild animal with the holistic view of an ecologist, that it is not a sad event but part of life, part of the food chain, a necessary step for something else to live. But I have a big heart, and feeling that weak hummingbird’s little heart broke mine, so I sat perched up there on the landscaping with that bird for 2 hours. I just couldn't detach myself. I was mystified, and attached. I truly wanted her to make it. I tenderly fed her.
I’Il never, for the rest of my days, forget the day I hand fed a ruby-throated hummingbird a columbine flower, slowly twirling the 5 tubed flower and letting her sip from each part like a red barreled revolver of life.
Feeding a ruby-throated hummingbird a columbine flower
I seem to never use the word hummingbird without tying in the words fragile or fragility when mentioning them, but that association took on a much more concrete, delicate, and visceral meaning for me after today. Why did it only take 3 grams to weigh the fragility of life? Life is mighty precious.
“As delicate and light as morning dew. Beating wings they whisper a baby’s breathe. Filling me with wonder.” ~ J.J. Grey from the song King Hummingbird