The world’s littlest birds

Around sunset not long ago, a hummingbird flew into our house.

As a bit of backstory, I’ve always wanted to live in a cabin with nothing but wilderness for miles. That never happened and instead, our house is in the middle of American Suburbia. It’s comfortable, but the closest we get to ‘wilderness’ is to throw open the patio doors now and then. In all the years we’ve lived here we’ve never had a bird fly in. Bugs, yes; a mouse or two. An alligator lizard. Never a bird.

Anyway, it’s sunset and I’m in another part of the house when my teen-age daughter calls, “Hey mom, there’s a hummingbird in the playroom!”

Sure enough, there it is, flitting back and forth and back and forth before landing on the chain of the ceiling lamp.

A few hummingbird facts:

  • They consume twice their body weight each day. That’d be 250 pounds of food for a petite human. On average, they eat every ten minutes.
  • They fly ^up^ when they feel threatened. (For example, when trapped inside a house.)
  • Among native tribes in Mexico and tracing back to the Aztecs, hummingbirds are said to bring messages from beyond the grave. They’re manifestations of people we’ve lost.

That last one is something I heard after our little girl died, in September of 1995. Now, dammit Jim, I’m a scientist not a mystic, but it’s human nature to want a connection with the afterlife, even if just in thought. Imagine seeing a hummingbird and feeling like the distance between you and someone you loved had vanished. The idea of hummingbirds as go-betweens has always brought me comfort, and I developed a habit of saying, “Sweetie, Mama loves you,” when one would zip by.

So, back to the playroom. A wild animal is flying around inside our house. To make things worse, our ceilings are vaulted, and her instinct is to fly higher—away from the doors. She’s trapped. Getting un-trapped means doing something against her instincts, which is as hard for hummingbirds as it is for people.

We aren’t sure how to help. We attach a balloon to the end of a long pole (feeling very nervous about the idea of ‘attaching a balloon to the end of a long pole.’) Mind you, the idea is not to knock her outside tennis-ball style, but, you know, sort of to ‘steer’ her close enough to the door so she can find it.

No luck. She panics, starts dive-bombing the pole, and we back off. She sits on the ceiling lamp chain again, breathing heavy. (Well, as heavy as a hummingbird can breathe with those itty-bitty lungs.) She sits there, flicks her wings, and glares at us.

More hummingbird facts:

  • Adult ruby-throated hummingbirds weigh less than a nickel. Three grams. Nearly a gram of that is their flight muscles—their pecs.
  • Heart rate is 1200 bpm (yours is closer to 75).
  • Nesting females eat ash. From burnt wood. Who knew? Apparently, it replenishes calcium lost during egg laying.
  • Their eggs are the smallest of any bird—about the size of a coffee bean. Babies hatch at two to three weeks and fledge three weeks later.

Okay. Next, we think the little thing might fly toward light. This makes sense, yes? Hummingbirds are small. They fly. Like, um, moths. Worth a try. We turn the lights inside the house off, and the lights outside on.

I’d like to point out that had I been younger, or had my daughter been less worried, or had the hummingbird had the gift of human speech, one of us might have had the presence of mind to suggest googling how to get a hummingbird out of a house, since we probably aren’t the first people to face this challenge.

In fact, the advice is easy to find.

But I’m not thinking clearly, what with a flighty thing zipping around and my daughter upset (and the flighty thing none too happy either).  But you know what? According to that link, we’re doing all the right things. Take that, Siri!

We give Hummy about a half hour in the dark room with the light on outside and the patio doors wide. Figure she needs to sit on that lamp chain and have a good think about it all. Stare at those wide-open doors and realize that light, outside, is a clue. We just let her be.

More fun facts:

  • They can fly backward. No other bird can.
  • Some travel non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico—up to five hundred miles at a stint. Some eat—drink?—seawater. Some species migrate 3000 miles over the course of a year.
  • A flock of hummingbirds is called a shimmer, a bouquet, a tune.
  • The smallest hummingbird (and the smallest bird) is the Bee Hummingbird. It lives in Cuba and is five centimeters long.

_____________________________       That’s about five centimeters.

So, anyway, it’s September. And like I said, there’s lore about hummingbirds and the afterlife, and our little girl died in September—her life was eleven days in September of 1995, and I talk to hummingbirds when I see them, because of her.

In a sense, it actually means something to me to have the bird in the house, with us, in September. And yet, because of that, I’m determined to save this little messenger. She graces the piece of my past that belongs to my daughter.  It would break my heart all over again if we couldn’t save her.

So I peek into the playroom and the bird’s still there. I explain (once more) about the door and the light.

A bit later: “Mom! The bird’s in the computer room!”

My daughter’s pointing under my husband’s desk. He’s busy coding. He’s got his headphones on, not moving, just typing. He knows there’s a bird at his feet and not reacting at all. Cool-headed guy.

It’s dark under the desk, one of those sturdy ‘dad desks.’ So, I grab a light to find little tweety. She doesn’t like that light, either.

Daughter wants me to fix the whole thing, Dad’s a champ, not moving or anything, and I’m trying to exude calm while quietly wondering just how long a hummingbird can get by without eating. She’s on the ground now. Is that, you know, a really bad sign?

More facts:

  • These sweet little birds survive hours without food or water. At night, they go into torpor, a mild hibernation state, to conserve energy.
  • Their natural diet includes nectar, small insects and spiders, tree sap and juice from broken fruits. (That’s good! I’m a lazy gardener. Tons of fallen fruit in the yard. Bugs, too.)

She’s fluttering around in the knee cubby. There’s no good way out—the desk backs against a wall with drawers down both sides, and my husband’s legs are blocking the front. I’m crawling around at his feet, making what I can only assume are soothing hummingbird noises.

The bird flutters up and lands on my husband’s thigh. She sits there. On him, on his lap.

This is my chance, I think. Do I throw a towel on her?

Okay, so the answer to that is a big fat ‘No, do not throw a towel on top of a hummingbird, because a towel weighs a hell of a lot more than a nickel.’ I’m cognizant enough to sort through the math here, while still trying to look calm.  As these complex calculations are proceeding inside my head, the bird heads back down to the floor, so the debate is pointless anyway.

The moment’s gone. I gnash my teeth. Daughter asks unhelpful questions like, “Do you see it?” but fortunately not yet asking anything along the lines of “Don’t they need to eat a lot?”

Little Hummy must be trying to sort through things too, because before you know it she’s back on my husband’s leg.

And according to those tribes in Mexico, hummingbirds are visits from those we’ve loved. To me, this moment is that—it’s our little girl sitting on her daddy’s lap, and the twenty-four years she’s been gone, vanish.

Daughter says, “Dad. You’re officially a Disney princess now.”

I refuse to mess up my second chance. No towel, just hands. I cup and swoop. Both hands, around her, making the space between my hands as big as I can.

I have her. In my hands, and she stills. I can’t feel her at all—she’s that insubstantial. I want her outside as quickly as possible. The front door is closest.

“Close the patio doors,” I say to teenager. “Open the front door,” I say to husband. He does, she does, and I carry this sweet little thing out to the yard.

I open my hands. The hummingbird is… calm. Sitting, in my palms, looking at me. We’re outside, together, and I feel unspeakable awe. She doesn’t move at all for a long, long moment, she simply watches me, and I watch her, in this unspoken moment. I still can’t feel her—there’s nothing to feel. I only see her.

I see her with my heart. And she flies up, and away, and into the night.

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