Author: Sy Montgomery /
They were found, nearly dead, in a cuplike nest as small as a coin in diameter. They had hatched from eggs the size of Navy beans and were born the size of bumblebees. They were pink, naked and blind, their beaks yellow, stubby and soft. No one knew what had happened to their mother. But when the couple who found the babies phoned WildCare, the local wildlife rehabilitation center in San Rafael, they knew just what to do: WildCare called my friend, artist and sculptor Brenda Sherburn.
For years, Brenda took on the herculean task of raising the tiniest and most helpless of all birds: orphaned baby hummingbirds. I flew from New Hampshire to help her. What she taught me changed my life. She allowed me to have a hand in resurrection.
Raising baby hummingbirds is a herculean task even for a mother hummingbird.
When I first saw them, the babies were less than an inch and a half long. Their feathers were mere quills. Brenda had them in an incubator, snuggled beak-to-tail in their nest, which was resting on a pedestal fashioned from the cardboard core of a toilet paper roll atop a carpet of tissues inside a plastic utility basket. They were dazzlingly tiny, perfect and vulnerable.
Even with a mother bird to care for them, hummingbirds face monstrous perils. The mother may have to leave the nest up to 200 times a day to gather enough food for her babies. And while she’s gone, fire ants and yellow jackets can sting the babies to death in the nest. Bass may leap from ponds to gulp them whole. Hawks, jays, roadrunners, opossums, raccoons, even dragonflies and praying mantids eat them. They can die of cold. They can die of heat. They can die of infestations of mites. And they will certainly die if they’re alone.
But with Brenda, the babies weren’t alone now. She knew exactly what they needed: 200 fruit flies. They’re best caught fresh (though you can order them from a pet supply house, Brenda prefers them wild). They must be crushed with a mortar and pestle, then mixed with a special nectar supplemented with vitamins, enzymes and oils in precise combinations. The mixture spoils easily and must be mixed fresh several times a day. This food must be delivered into the babies desperately gaping mouths by syringe—every 20 minutes from dawn to dusk. Feed them too little and they starve. Feed them too much, and like bubbles, they will literally pop.
The babies we rescued grew up, learned to fly, and left on migration. It was a miracle of sorts. And now, more than ten years after we raised those orphans, Brenda is helping to birth a new miracle.
These days, she still fields calls about hummingbirds from around the country. Her house is still abuzz with hummers. But now, though she no longer rears orphans, she is still supporting these tiny, glittering gems of birds.And she is attempting, anew, yet another herculean task, with the creation of Yampa Sculpture Path and Studio.
In the high desert, with a strip of rich grassland where ranchers pasture their cattle, she is creating a haven for art, for community, and for pollinators of all kinds.
Her love for hummers has spiraled out to include bees, butterflies and moths as well. On their new land, Brenda and her husband Russ are planting groves and gardens. Pollinator plants will be everywhere: cornflowers, with their soft, fuzzy, blue double blossoms of fringed petals; Buddleias, or butterfly bush, with fragrant clusters of red, yellow, orange, pink, purple and white petals at the tips of arching branches; columbine, bell-shaped, spurred flowers that dangle and nod with the breeze. She’s planting Salvia, its tiny, tubular, usually scarlet flowers stacked on tall stalks; Penstamon, or Beard Tongue, sporting towers of tubular flowers in colors ranging from crimson to electric blue. Gardens will be peppered with the shrub-like spires of Lupines, and dotted with Paintbrush, its stalks of linear leaves topped with bright red bracts.
When we talk on the phone, I can almost see it: Brenda will be walking with visitors beneath a trellis covered with orange trumpet flowers, with Buddleias on the side and daisy-shaped bee balm on the bottom. Artists will gather at the old farmhouse. “I’d love to walk through an arbor with hummingbirds and bees and butterflies buzzing all round,” she says.
One entire acre will be devoted to a particular pollinator garden that will be planted in a spiral. The idea behind it is, she explains, is that here, “you spiral down the path, representing your inner journey—accompanied by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.”
What better creatures to accompany any seeker on an inner journey? In Native American lore, bees symbolize community; Celtic myths tell us bees are spirit messenger from the Otherworld. Around the world, butterflies evoke the promise of metamorphosis. And the sparkling, hovering hummingbirds, because they are impossibly tiny and fast and beautiful, are emblems—as shall be Yampa Sculpture Path and Studio– of irrepressible life.
–International bestselling writer Sy Montgomery is the author of 30 books, including How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in 13 Animals. Her next book, The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty and Renewal on Wings, will be published by Simon and Schuster this May.