True Tale of a Tiny Wildlife Rescue in Costa Rica
My tiny guest in his makeshift sanctuary
I was in for a surprise when I pulled up to my garage last Thursday. I saw a tiny hummingbird fluttering and tumbling around on the ground. He was obviously hurt. Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to my garden where I planted the trees that attract and feed them. They are stunning creatures to watch as they hover about from flower to flower. Timidly, afraid that he would struggle and fight in my hands, hurting himself more, I cautiously picked him up. He went totally still, wings spread awkwardly in my hands. I felt his tiny heart beat furiously. I saw that one eye was injured, and one shoulder out of kilter. He was not sick, but injured from a collision, probably with a window. Birds do this sometimes in the eco-residential area where I live, high in the hills outside San Jose, Costa Rica. A hummingbird flies at an average speed of 25-30 miles per hour and can dive at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, so he may have had quite a knock.
I took the bird inside, perched him on the edge of a jar lid that I filled with a mix of water and sugar, and Googled furiously about treating injured hummingbirds. I learned that hummingbirds feed 5 to 8 times every hour, sipping nectar from flowers and they also need protein that they get from eating tiny insects on the plants. I was going to be busy feeding this guy, if he could eat at all. With wings that flap up to 90 times per second and heart rates exceeding 1,200 beats per minute, hummingbirds depend on calorie-rich nectar for fuel. They can easily consume their own body weight in the stuff each day; one study described a 3-gram hummingbird drinking 43 grams of sugar water in one day, a full 14 times its body weight.
I looked across at my tiny guest, he had not moved, had not sipped the sugar water. I was going to have to feed him. I found a YouTube video of a lady feeding a hummingbird from a straw. I tried that, but could not keep the water in the straw. I then used a syringe, holding it to his beak, letting drops fall before him. After a few attempts, his darted out a black tongue, as long as a needle, tasting the nectar, stabbing it back and forth at incredible speed. Researchers have long believed that capillary action enables hummingbirds to drink at high-speed.
My Googling showed that hummingbirds must get expert help within 24-hours if they had any hope of surviving. They cannot live on nectar alone but also need a special protean mix to substitute for the bugs they eat in the world. This was a new concern. I remembered the stray dog I had rescued and all the time I spent caring for him because I could not find a dog rescue center. In fact, I now have two rescued dogs living with me. Who could treat a hummingbird?
That evening I continued to feed the hummingbird every 12 minutes or so. He even chirped, excited when I came into my makeshift bathroom sanctuary to feed him. Later that night I found him sleeping on the branch, barely breathing and unresponsive Was he getting worse? It was time for another Google. I discovered that when hummingbirds sleep, they go into a hibernation-like state called torpor. This is a deep sleep. Their metabolism will lower to one-fifteenth (1/15) of normal. Their body temperature drops to the point of becoming hypothermic. Their heart rate will drop to about 50 beats per minute. Their breathing will slow to the point that it looks like they have stopped breathing. By sleeping like this, hummingbirds can save up to 60% of their available energy. Hoping that was the case, I headed off to bed, wondering if he would be alive next day or not. If he was, how could I go to work, the bird had to be fed every 12 minutes. I messaged my friends asking if anybody knew someone who could help.
I was up to exercise at 5.30 am. The bird was alive and he was hungry again. I fed him and called my physiotherapist to cancel training. The physiotherapist told me about a bird rescue center located 40 minutes away. I googled “Zoo Ave” and found the Animal Rescue Zoo Ave, managed by the Nature Restoration Foundation. This is a non-profit organization working for more than 25 years in the conservation of wildlife in Costa Rica to ensure the reintroduction of wildlife species that have disappeared or reduced their populations because of humans’ actions.
I took the hummingbird over to the center immediately, arriving before they were open. The people there were very kind and professional. They did say he was very banged up. I put my little friend into the wooden cage and left, saddened to hear the bird was in bad way, but relieved that he would get the best care possible. If he did die, it would not be in the street. That was last week.
I got some good news today. The rescue center responded to my email enquiring about the hummingbird. He is still alive, stable and responding to treatment. My lesson from all this is that even when it seems difficult or impossible, we can all do something more to help the creatures that make our world a beautiful place. Often, things may not turn out well, but we ought to try. And if we lack the will, skill or time to help, we should support those who do.
The Zoo Ave Rescue Center has just been accredited in 2017 by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) for its work in conserving the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. Donations can be made at their website.