When Terry Masear, author of The Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood rescued a fledgling 12 years ago, she had no idea that she would one day be Hollywood’s go-to hummingbird rehabber, fielding as many as 85 calls a day from distraught Angelinos.
Speaking from her home in West Hollywood, she explains how one of the smallest, most beautiful birds in the world evolved from dinosaurs; how hummingbirds can experience PTSD; how even rock stars cry over injured hummingbird chicks; and why she suffers from kitchenheimers.
What’s the link between Hollywood and Hummingbirds?
There isn’t any! [Laughs] But when filming and nesting season coincide and film crews are outside filming and the fledglings are inexperienced flyers, they slam into things. Film stars don’t generally bring in birds themselves. They send their “people.”
There was one rock-n-roll star, who was having a party and accidentally cut down a nest. He cried when I came to rescue the chicks but swore me to secrecy so his tough guy reputation wouldn’t be ruined! Hummingbirds have that effect on people.
Even though they’re so tiny they weigh less than a nickel, they’re ferocious and act like they rule the earth.
How did you get involved in hummingbird rescue?
I’d always dreamed of getting involved in wildlife rehab and in the spring of 2003 one of my Abyssinian cats escaped from the house during a windstorm and brought a young chick home. I located Jean Roper, the most experienced hummingbird rehabber in Los Angeles, if not the world, and left the chick with her.
The following spring, I rescued another baby that had been washed out of his nest by a torrential downpour. So I ended up back at Jean’s house, who became my mentor. It was a perfect example of the Buddhist proverb: when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
What is the evolutionary lineage of a hummingbird?
We believe they are descended from 600-pound carnivorous theropods, that roamed the planet 220 million years ago. They were bird-footed dinosaurs and ran very fast, kind of like a Jurassic park nightmare! But over the next 50 million years these dinosaurs shrank rapidly and evolved into the first birds.
Hummingbirds continued to radically downsize from their prehistoric origins. Even though they’re so tiny they weigh less than a nickel, they’re ferocious and act like they rule the earth. They are the dinosaurs that won evolution.
They have amazing flying abilities.
The hummingbird wing is the most remarkable miracle of micro-engineering on the planet. It rotates in a figure eight pattern 60 to 120 times per second, which is difficult to wrap your mind around. Their unique wing design allows them to fly backward, laterally, flip, spin, barrel roll, and rotate 360 degrees when hovering in mid-air. They’re the only birds that can really do that.
They’re not the fastest birds in terms of miles per hour, but they can move 360 body lengths per seconds—the fastest of any bird. Their capacity to speed, brake and hover in mid-air allows them to inhabit a rich evolutionary niche between insects and birds that nobody else can get to.
You write that “saving hummingbirds requires a community.” What dangers do hummingbirds face in a city like Los Angeles?
There’s a lot of [danger] in Los Angeles because of the sheer number of hummingbirds trying to coexist with 18 million people! Along with human hazards like tree trimming, people picking babies up off the ground when the mother’s still feeding them, domestic cats, windows and cars, there are the hazards in nature—other wildlife, windstorms, rainstorms. It’s a full time job during nesting season.
A lot of our rescue work takes place over the telephone. We want to keep the birds in the wild unless they are seriously injured or the chicks have lost their mother. So we give advice on how to liberate trapped birds from houses, repair damaged nests, construct faux nests for grounded fledglings or keep an eye out for mother birds.
Hummingbirds are incredibly intelligent. Like songbirds, they have the largest brains in relation to their body size of any birds on the planet.
I once had three Vedanta monks sit by a nest for 30-minutes each to see if the mother bird was taking care of the chicks. She was, but she was so fast the first two monks didn’t see her. The third one did. But not everyone is as patient as a monk [Laughs] So it requires a lot of cooperation from residents of Los Angeles to be willing to watch nests or brave the traffic to bring us their injured birds.
You talk about flight rehab and the relationship you have with the hummingbirds. Do they really know you are helping them?
Hummingbirds are incredibly intelligent. Like songbirds, they have the largest brains in relation to their body size of any birds on the planet. So they know when you’re on their side trying to help them. City birds are particularly amenable to human aid. I’ve seen it over and over. They cooperate because they know that without us they’re doomed. It’s quite remarkable.
At the heart of the book is a bird called Pepper, who seemed to suffer from PTSD. Tell us a bit about your relationship with Pepper and about the possibility that these tiny creatures have emotions.
Pepper was a female, grounded on a film set in Griffith Park during a movie shoot. She sustained a pectoral injury, from an aggressive male that was trying to mate with her; she must have fought him and injured her wing. Pectoral injuries can be healed but take a long time, so Pepper was in [rehab] for the season.
Pepper had several recurrent meltdowns—she cried, clung to the cage and wouldn’t leave. She really did suffer from post-traumatic stress—I’ve had a few birds like that, but it took her a long time for her to get the courage to leave the aviary. I guess you could say I was her therapist. Perhaps because of the length of time she spent with me, we bonded deeply.
Their brains may be the size of a BB, yet they can store so much information. They migrate, have spatial memory, and as I learned through Pepper and some of my other rescues, complex emotional memory. Hummingbirds have incredible emotions. And I think we misunderstand them by thinking that they do not.
We need to change our approach toward all living beings—if something as diminutive as a hummingbird can share the kind of powerful emotions we need to rethink our attitudes, big time.
You tell a horrid story of a family trying to rehab a hummingbird on their own and starving it to death.
This is the most painful of rehab stories. Some people believe they can make a hummingbird a pet, which is not only illegal but inhumane. Hummingbirds cannot live in captivity for long. They need to fly. But some people, usually people with kids, think it will be fun for their children to raise them, not realizing that hummingbirds eat 200 to 300 fruit flies a day. Sugar water, or nectar, is not their primary staple. Protein is. If they don’t get protein they starve to death. It’s just ghastly the way these young birds look when we finally get them. They are so starved by sugar water they turn their heads away when you try to feed them. They are afraid of eating!
I love the story of Iris—who was a rehabber in her own right—tell us about this remarkable little creature.
Iris was accurately named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, linking the earthly world with the divine. And that’s what she did: she taught me things about hummingbirds I didn’t know before. When she first came into the rescue, she actually moved out of her faux nest and into a nest with two chicks, whom she groomed and protected with her wings, like a mother. It was amazing and a real eye-opener to me, because I learned that these tiny birds have not only huge personalities but different personalities.
It’s the moment when you release them that inspires me most.
Hollywood is full of crazy people, as we all know. Tell us about some of your more peculiar calls.
You can’t even imagine. People believe that the hummingbirds are divinely sent spirits, or shape shifters. They think they are dead relatives coming back to communicate with them. Evidently, there’s a lot of telepathic communication going on in Hollywood between people and their hummingbirds. And, of course, everyone believes they’re specially assigned to these birds! [Laughs uproariously]
You had a bird that you thought wasn’t going to make it because he had lost his wing feathers. But something unusual happened.
A blind man had a nest that his cat brought him, which ended up in the ICU with the other chicks and rescues. I was worried about a chick whose wing feathers appeared to be gone, which can happen sometimes. This bird came in after a Santa Ana windstorm and he was very young and strong, unbelievably healthy. But it appeared that his wing feathers were missing and that meant he was doomed.
But this blind man encouraged me to continue trying to open up the wing. He believed that the feathers were still there. I’d been working on the bird for three hours and was ready to give up, but he said, "the feathers are still there." I don’t know how he knew but he had very intense auditory skills and he ended up being right! There was a little bubble of tree sap that had gotten on the wing and bonded the feathers together. I dissolved the sap and the feathers popped out like a miracle.
You confess to having a rare disease that other rehabbers come down with during fledging season called kitchenheimers. I think my wife suffers from that without any birds in our lives. Can you explain what it is?
Kitchenheimers is a common problem for rehabbers, because you need so many supplies for the 60-70 birds you’re caring for in four different types of cages. A lot of them have special dietary needs or need medication, so you’ve got a lot on your mind. I’m overwhelmed, exhausted and end up circling the kitchen so much I don’t even know what I’m looking for anymore! [Laughs]
I just know I need something, so I start looking! There are probably five things I came in there for, but if I end up with three I count myself lucky. That’s kitchenheimers at its worst.
What inspires you in your work with hummingbirds?
We have probably released 10,000 hummingbirds over the last ten years, so I know rehab is working. But it’s the moment when you release them that inspires me most. They fly out the aviary, spiral hundreds of feet into the sky, and you think about the way they came in, as orphaned or injured creatures with absolutely no hope… To see them in that glorious moment, dozens of them spiralling up into the air above the city, is just exhilarating!