What to do, what not to do, and why
By Jon Friedman
The important actions we take in attempting to help or rescue hummingbirds should “cause no harm.” Keep in mind that these are extremely fragile birds so they must be handled with extreme care. Invariably, there comes a time (or two) when we discover a hummingbird that needs our help. You may find a hummer that somehow got indoors and refuses to leave the highest point in the room, a nestling that fell out of the nest, a distressed hummer with a speared dried insect stuck on its bill, a hummer with a broken wing, etc. Our birding instincts take over and we want to volunteer our help to any hummingbird we think needs our help. However, we need to do the right things so we don’t accidently make the hummer’s situation worse. Keep in mind that these fragile birds must be handled with extreme care. The “common wisdom” we’ve all heard about parent birds rejecting their babies due to the presence of human scent is simply myth – an old wives’ tale that has no basis in truth or reality.
It’s also important to know and understand that all hummingbirds, and most other birds, are listed by the federal government as protected species. This means it is illegal to own or keep any wild birds. The same laws make it illegal to possess any bird parts, even a feather. There are rare exceptions that all require filing paperwork and paying fees for permits. However, it is extremely difficult to obtain permits for handling or keeping birds. The most common exceptions to the law involve Native Americans who collect feathers (particularly eagle feathers) for ceremonial use, licensed rehabilitators, educational and scientific institutions, and some researchers such as bird banders. It is not illegal for lay people to have birds in their possession if they are in the act of rescuing a bird truly in need of rescuing. It is not illegal to transport a rescued bird to a licensed rehabber, clinic or animal hospital. It is illegal for the non-qualified to attempt to help a bird in need in your home without the proper licensing, education, and facilities.
Our urge to try to rescue a hummingbird sometimes leads to unintentionally harming the bird, rather than helping it. This is likely to happen when we discover baby hummers that we think are “orphaned” or “abandoned.” In the vast majority of such cases, this is simply not true. Just because you may discover a baby hummer in a nest without the mom present does not mean the baby is alone in the world. In all likelihood, the mother hummer is out finding food to bring back to the nest. Mom hummers do this without the help of the adult males. She may be out foraging for a few minutes or for an hour or more before returning with enough food to feed her young.
Before assuming that the “orphaned” or “abandoned” baby is in need of rescue, understand that the mom spends quite a bit of time away from the nest finding food to feed her babies. Try to make an informed decision as to whether or not to interfere. Spend at least an hour continuously watching from a distance to determine if the mom is out getting food. Be sure to observe from a safe, hidden location so mom doesn’t see you anywhere near the nest. Your physical presence will prevent her from returning. Stay away from the nest. Watch from a protected area or from a window inside your home. Use your binoculars for the best viewing. Stay out of sight. Do not interrupt your observation for any reason. Your presence may not only prevent the mom from returning to the nest with food for the babies, but may also tip off nearby predators (cats, hawks, snakes, roadrunners, etc.) to the location of the babies. Using your binoculars will enable you to see everything you need to see. If the mom returns to the nest, she will do the very best job rearing her young. Too often, we humans succumb to the urge to provide help when it is not necessary or actually interfere with the successful nurturing that only a mom hummer can provide.
Mother hummers feed their babies often and regularly during daylight hours. Moms typically feed babies 4 to 6 times an hour and each feeding only takes 3 to 5 seconds. This is why you must constantly watch the nestlings. In the time it takes to answer the phone or to get a drink of water, you could miss a crucial feeding. The babies can actually survive for up to four hours without any food. In nature, they rarely go an hour without eating. If, after an hour of uninterrupted observation, you don’t see the mom hummer return to the nest to feed her babies, only then can you consider that perhaps the mom was predated upon, injured, or is otherwise unable to care for her young. At this point, it would be appropriate to contact a wildlife rehabber. Note: Rehabbers are dedicated, hardworking, and constantly busy, so please do not call them for help unless you are sure the babies will not survive without human intervention.
DO NOT ASSUME babies are abandoned. It is possible, but probably not. After at least an hour of continuous observation from a safe distance, it’s now time to make a decision. If the babies look healthy, they are likely NOT abandoned. Babies use silence in the nest as a defense against predators. Silent babies are usually healthy babies. However, if the babies are constantly “peeping” for more than ten minutes, they may be in trouble. Continue watching. If the mom does not return within the hour, and the babies are vocalizing, then it is time to contact a qualified rehabber.
If a trip to the rehabber is in order, prepare for a stress-free experience for the hummingbird. Birds cannot handle too much stress, so try to make the ride as comfortable as possible. Prepare a small box, at least the size of a typical shoe box, with a cloth towel lining the bottom. The cloth will provide a surface that the bird can grip rather than risk sliding around on a slick cardboard bottom. Cover the top with flaps or a cloth to keep it dark inside the box. The darkness will simulate nighttime and better enable the bird to relax under strange conditions and a different environment from the one it is used to. Hopefully the bird will sleep en route. Be sure to punch some holes for ventilation and allow the bird to breathe fresh air. Do not put food or water in the box with bird.
You can try to give the bird some nectar until the trip begins. Offer a five-parts-water to one-part-nectar solution at least every 30 minutes until you get the bird to the rehabber. Use an eyedropper to feed it. Hold the eyedropper over its head so it has to point its bill upward to feed (as it does when mom feeds it). Only give it three to five drops per feeding, one slow drop at a time. Do not force it to feed in any way. Once the dropper is above its head and its bill is pointed upward, it should take a single drop at a time. Be sure it has swallowed before giving the next drop. This will keep its energy up from feeding to feeding. Keep in mind that nectar is not food. It simply provides quick energy for birds that use it up due to their very high metabolism. Hummers cannot survive very long on nectar alone. Trying to force the bird to feed can result in accidental drowning. If the hummer refuses to drink, try again in a little while. If it consistently refuses to feed, get it to the rehabber as quickly as possible. Once the bird is in the hands of a licensed rehabilitator, it will be fed a proper diet of insects.
If baby hummers have fallen out of their nest, gently pick them up, check to be sure there are no obvious injuries, and carefully place them back in the nest. Remember the myth about human scent causing moms to abandon their babies. In the natural world, animal moms don’t abandon their babies. Human moms are far more likely to abandon their babies than animal moms. Also, be sure to first check the nests for ants or other insects that may have been attacking them and causing them to leave the nest in the first place. Avoid using any aerosol or chemical sprays near the bird’s nest. Again, continue to watch from a distance for the mom to return.
Sometimes getting them back into their original nest isn’t easy. The nest may be high enough above ground level that using a ladder will make it easier. Sometimes simply locating the nest is not easy. Hummer nests are just plain tiny and the moms do an excellent job of camouflaging them to protect them from being seen by predators. Keep in mind that nestlings and fledglings cannot fly, so common sense informs you that their nest has to be close by and probably straight above wherever they landed. If the nest cannot be found, a surrogate nest can be used. Tack a small box like the one described earlier to the closest location to where you would think the original nest could have been. Place the baby or babies onto the soft cloth lining the bottom of the new “nest” and leave the area so mom can return and take care of the young without having to deal with any human presence. Check out the surrogate nest an 11-year-old girl made when she encountered two baby hummers that fell out of their nest. That article and photos are in Messages from our Customers in the birding articles archive on our wildbirdsonline.com website.
Hummingbirds sometimes fly into garages or open windows or doors and may not be able to find their way out. In cases such as these, they may need to be rescued. First, help them to escape by themselves. Opening doors or windows sometimes enables them to find their own way out. Often they fly to the highest points and do not seem to understand that by coming down to the window or door they can escape back into nature. Here are some tips to try in such a situation. First, remain calm and keep kids and pets away so they do not create more anxiety for the bird. Try hanging a popular feeder in the door or window opening and stand far way and observe if the bird goes to the feeder and then finds its way out by itself. Sometimes this works. However, if ten minutes goes by and the bird shows no interest in the feeder, then a different approach is in order. If you have a bird or butterfly net, gently and carefully net the bird and release it outside. Be extremely careful with this method. Do not go wildly swinging the net at the bird as you could easily do more harm than good by injuring the bird. Do not attempt to net a flying bird. Only use the net if the bird is perched.
Hummingbirds (like most other avian species) have poor night vision and do not like to fly in the dark. Try closing the doors and windows to shut out as much natural light as possible. Leave an overhead electric light on and wait until the hummer flies over a clear section of the floor. Turn off the light at this time and bird will likely gently flutter to the ground. Use a flashlight to locate the bird in the darkened room and using your net or bare hands, gently scoop up the bird and release it outdoors. If your garage has windows and you cannot darken the room enough to use this rescue technique, hang a feeder high so the bird can use it immediately. Then, wait and try this method again before dusk.
Call your local rehabilitation/rescue center, or The Wild Bird Store, if you need further assistance or information.
In the Tucson basin area, the single best hummingbird rehabilitation organization is Tucson Mountain Hummingbird Rescue, headed by the very experienced expert, Noreen Geyer-Kordosky. She’s located in northwest Tucson but services all of Tucson and as much of Southern Arizona as possible. She can be reached on her LAN line phone, (520) 743-0677. If she’s out in the field, she can be reached on her cell phone, (520) 240-2486. Two other rehabbers with expertise with hummingbirds and who work closely with Noreen are Patricia (520 - 609-2537) and Janet (director of Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson) (520 - 743-0217.
For folks needing this type of help who live in midtown or on the far east side, contact Tucson Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue Center, (520) 290-9453, or Valley Animal Hospital on 22nd Street, (520) 748-0331.