My favorite nature writers are the ones who ground themselves in the rational, but stay open to the mystical. Too much rationality and all you’re reading is dry, scientific observation. Too little and you’re reading overwrought nonsense. Terry Masear hits the sweet spot in her memoir Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood, about her experiences as a hummingbird rehabilitator in Beverly Hills. (The book was published in 2015; thus its qualification for my “late to the party” designation.) I loved this book – really loved it, so much that I read all but the two final chapters last fall, and simply set it aside because I couldn’t bear for it to end. This week, with the hummingbirds due back in less than a month, I decided to read the whole book again. And this time, I would face the truth that all good things must come to an end, and finish it.
Masear began her adventures in hummingbird rehab in the spring of 2003, when her Abyssinian cat walked into her house one morning and gifted her with a nestling, depositing the unharmed baby gently on the floor in front of her. After calling around, Masear located Jean, a longtime hummingbird rehabilitator who would become her mentor and colleague, and brought the infant bird to her.
The following spring, fate called again. Late to teach a morning class at UCLA, Masear stepped out in a downpour on the way to her car, only to catch sight of a hummingbird chick dangling by a single claw from his wind-destroyed nest in a nearby ficus tree. Back to Jean’s she went, baby in tow.
This time, the hook stayed in. Masear began working with the hummingbirds herself, pausing her teaching each summer to focus exclusively on hummingbird rescue. Fastest Things on Wings loosely follows the 2008 hummingbird rehab season, and features two particular hummingbirds, Gabriel and Pepper – the former a familiar-looking male who collided with a limousine during a courtship flight display, and the latter a wounded female who was found in a chafing dish during an outdoor luncheon.
The narrative is not linear, and jumps back and forth in time, as one rehab experience calls to mind another from the past. But it works, and if you can hang on as the story darts about like, well, a hummingbird, you will absorb more information about the species than you ever imagined, as Masear brings the reader into a kind of fascinated intimacy with the tiny birds.
We learn about hummingbirds’ outsized intelligence, and their astonishing memory, both geographic and temporal – they’re known to return to the same spot, within feet, on the same date every year – as well as the hummies’ astonishing physical abilities. Masear shares the stunning feats of migration achieved by hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated’s all-at-once, eighteen hour trip across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, and some rufous hummingbirds’ seven-thousand-mile round trip from Central America to their breeding grounds in Alaska, and back again.
But it’s the interplay between the birds and people that takes the story to its deepest places. Human beings are both a blessing and a curse to hummingbirds; their populations have skyrocketed thanks to human adoration, resulting in countless backyard sugar feeders, and even gardens planted solely to attract hummingbirds. But at the same time, the human world is gravely hazardous to the tiny creatures. Masear recounts stories of hummingbirds trapped in houses with skylights, stranded in swimming pools, and caught under windshield wipers.
Even when people try to help hummingbirds, they often fail them unintentionally, through simple ignorance. Dirty feeders can cause agonizing deaths by fungal infection; delicate claws can be ripped out by the loops in the terry-cloth towels people too often use to pick up an injured bird; rescue birds fed the wrong thing – or the right thing for too long – can die easily.
Beyond that, the same human love that has enabled the growth of hummingbird populations can be hazardous when taken to an extreme; indeed, Masear notes that managing the emotions of the people who call her is an enormous, and taxing, part of her job. Callers are routinely hysterical and must be calmed down, especially if they share some blame for the hummingbird’s predicament.
Worse still are the people whose emotions cannot be managed, like the social worker who, abandoned by her own mother, became convinced that the female hummingbird who nested in one of her trees was “not a responsible mother.” The caller refused to be persuaded by Masear’s patient lecture outlining a hummingbird mother’s modus operandi: leave the nest when the chicks are a few days old to deter predators, and return every half hour to feed the growing nestlings. Insisting that she knew better than Masear, and no doubt projecting her own trauma onto the baby birds in her yard, the woman cut the nest for no reason, and delivered the chicks to rehab. Her refusal to manage her own emotional life thus deprived an adult hummingbird of her chicks and added unnecessarily to Masear’s already crushing workload in the middle of rehab season.
Masear’s struggles with the human element are a constant in her journey as a rehabilitator, particularly the public’s decidedly non-scientific view of her charges. In one breath she marvels at how everyone seems to think hummingbirds are messengers from their dead relatives, but then acknowledges the serendipity and mystery of her own introduction to the birds. But to Masear’s credit, though she is open to the unanswerable, she never wavers from the view that the observable, quantifiable hummingbird universe offers plenty of wonder on its own. There is no need to turn them into spiritual messengers, or anything other than what they are.
In the third chapter from the end, Masear finally works out the human obsession with hummingbirds: they are, she realizes after an agonizing discussion with a distraught caller, a mirror for our own mortality and vulnerability. “Their deaths,” she writes, “as small and insignificant as they seem, have the power to drive the hard truth of our own mortality straight home. Because in the end, as much as we work to deny it, our fundamental condition is not so different from theirs.”
Fastest Things on Wings isn’t just a beautifully, expansively, and humorously written memoir, though it is certainly that; it’s a book that feels necessary to anyone who loves hummingbirds and undertakes to feed or observe them. As Masear explains in the book, hummingbirds are increasingly a primary player in the world of urban nature. Having drawn them in, we ought to learn as much about them as we can in order to minimize the risks we pose to them. Fortunately, Fastest Things on Wings is a delightful and absorbing way to gain that education.