“Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood”

Fastest Things on Wings

“Fastest Things on Wings” by Terry Masear

Published Aug. 30, 2015, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Hummingbird rescue reveals beauty and mystery”

Book review: “Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,” by Terry Masear, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 306 pages, indexed, $25 hardcover.

By Barb Gorges

Terry Masear has a soft spot for hummingbirds, yet has survived the hard realities of rescuing and rehabbing them for 10 years.

Her new book is destined to wet your eyes now and then, as well as open them to the beauty and mystery of hummingbird life. She talks about her work in this interview by email. You can also listen to her NPR interview at http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2015/07/28/hummingbird-rescue-masear.

First, we should note in Cheyenne, hummingbirds typically visit only during migration, nesting at higher elevations.

Q. How is your 2015 season going? How about your success rate? Any favorite stories from this year?

A. Southern California hummingbird rehabilitators admit over 500 injured and orphaned birds into rescue centers annually. I release between seventy and eighty percent of my intakes. Due to promotional events for the book, I could not participate in hands-on rehabilitation this year, but I answered 2,000 calls, saved 200 birds over the phone, and sent another two hundred to rehab centers in the Los Angeles area. I helped rescue a pair of Allen’s nestlings that got entangled in a bizarre drama between their mother and her frustrated hybrid daughter (named Rosie by webcam viewers) from last year. This fascinating event, along with footage of several webcam nests and fledges this year, can be seen on Bella Hummingbird clips posted on YouTube.

Q. Have you noticed the drought affecting your hummingbird work?

A. The drought is leading to more mite-infested nests. But we have been able to save and keep most of these nestlings in their natural environment by having finders dust the nests and chicks with diatomaceous earth, which in no way deters the mothers from continuing to feed their young.

Q. What makes bird rescue in Hollywood different from other places?

A. Los Angeles has a larger and more diverse hummingbird population than any city in the world. Females often nest in backyards and near houses, which leads to encounters with humans and makes rescue more necessary. We see seven species–Allen’s, Anna’s, black-chinned, rufous, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and calliope— in rescue. Rehabbers also believe the Allen’s and rufous have hybridized in Southern California as we are noticing extensive rust coloration in many young males.

Q. What makes hummingbird rescue different from other bird rescue?

A. Hummingbird babies are extremely high-maintenance. They have to be hand fed every 30 minutes for 15 hours a day until they fledge and can be feeder trained. So a lot of bird rescue centers refuse to take them, which is why private rehabbers stay busy.

Q. What are the biggest hazards for hummingbirds in L.A.?

A. Tree trimmers and weekend gardeners are by far the greatest threats to young hummingbirds. So we are trying to educate the city and private citizens to refrain from trimming trees in the spring when birds are nesting. Also, a lot of well-meaning finders pick up grounded fledglings and carry them home, which takes the young birds away from their mothers who are still feeding them. Other dangers to hummingbirds include windows, domestic cats, termite tenting, and weather hazards like heavy wind and torrential rain.

Q. All things considered, do you think hummingbird feeders are good for hummingbirds?

A. As long as people keep them clean, sugar feeders benefit hummingbird populations and, along with introduced vegetation, have allowed species like the Anna’s and rufous to expand their ranges considerably.

Q. Which is more difficult, dealing with emotionally distraught callers that have found an injured or abandoned hummingbird, or dealing with the birds?

A. Of course, serious injuries present challenges for the rehabber and some losses will haunt you. But ask any rehabber on the front lines what the most difficult part of their work is and they will say dealing with the public. The majority of callers are compassionate and caring, but a certain percentage does not have the wildlife’s best interests in mind. Some callers don’t want to make any effort and will let helpless nestlings die if rehabbers don’t show up immediately. Others insist on keeping young birds as pets. When we explain why they cannot do this, legally or in good conscience, some get abusive. These conversations strain the patience of even the most forgiving rehabber, especially during peak season when the pressure is on.

Q. Record keeping is required for your permit, but are you also keeping notes that helped you write this book—all the anecdotes about particular birds and their personalities and challenges?

A. As far as overall intakes and releases, my records are pretty precise, so I referred to those when writing “Fastest Things on Wings.” And through these records I can recall certain birds because of their unique histories. Other remarkable characters, like Pepper, Gabriel, Iris, and Blacktop, are easy to remember because their stories are so extraordinary.

Q. A PhD in English doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to write a riveting story, as you have. What writing experience did you have before writing this book?

A. I taught research writing at UCLA for years and wrote a textbook for ESL students. Five years ago, ironically, I wrote a nonfiction book about a unique and mysterious experience my husband and I had with our cats. While I was trying to sell that manuscript, editors kept asking about hummingbird rehab, which led to this book.

Q. Were you out on book tours this spring and summer, and if so, who held down the fort?


I have been doing book signings and interviews all summer, which is why I could not do rehab. But my phone hasn’t stopped ringing for six months, so I’ve been deeply involved in the rescue business. And as exhausting as it is, I miss the powerfully rewarding experience of rehab and can’t wait to get back to it.

Bird of the Week: American Robin

American Robin

American Robin. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This officially most recognizable songbird has flourished as farmland and suburbs increase its favorite habitat: short grass. When you see one cocking its head, it is looking, rather than listening, for worms, its diet in spring and summer. In fall and winter, robins eat fruit and a few can be found in Cheyenne on the coldest days surviving on berries. Normally, the young from your yard will migrate with their parents, which often will be the pair that returns to nest in your yard again.

Published Sept. 1, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: House Wren

House Wren

House Wren. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This cavity nester is equally at home building its nest in a tree in an old flicker hole, a cow skull, a wren house in your backyard or in some abandoned human artifact. It gleans insects from all kinds of plants, so it’s a good bird to have around the garden. But, it will drive away other cavity nesters, including bluebirds and tree swallows. By late August it heads for the southern U.S. and Mexico.

Published Aug. 25, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Easily identified along the fence lines of Laramie County in summer, this flycatcher flies out to “hawk” insects and often returns to the same perch. However, this month they leave to spend the winter in the Amazon where they eat mostly fruit. Ornithologists aren’t sure if pairs stay together over the winter, but often they mate again the next year.

Published Aug. 18, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This species sings “oak-a-lee” in nearly every marsh and wet spot in North America during the breeding season. By late July, as they flock, sometimes roosting by the thousands and aggregating in the millions with other black birds such as cowbirds and grackles, their combined chorus warns farmers of impending devastation of corn, sunflower and rice crops. This is one non-game bird species for which license is given to plot population reduction.

Published Aug. 11, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Cliff Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Cliff Swallow. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Considering this species requires a wall with an overhang to begin attaching dabs of mud to make its gourd-shaped nest, it has done well by people, expanding its colony locations from cliffs to culverts, bridges and barns. Starting in mid-August, flocks will depart for South America, where they can continue to find their only source of food, flying insects.

Published Aug. 4, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Common Grackle. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Fond of nesting in evergreens, this blackbird moved into Wyoming within the last 60 years, following the establishment of shelterbelts and suburban-style development. While it feeds its young insects, the rest of the year it travels with red-winged blackbirds and European starlings in large flocks that devour and damage sprouting corn and other crops. It normally leaves Wyoming in October and doesn’t return until early spring.

Published Aug. 26, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

Say’s Phoebe. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Wanting a ceiling over their cup-shaped nest as well as a ledge to put it on, these insect-eating, western flycatchers have adapted to rural human structures of all kinds, and they are very loyal to successful nest locations from year to year. By September they must head south to keep finding their favorite food: wild bees (not honeybees), beetles and grasshoppers.

Published Aug. 19, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Often seen “teetering” along the shores of our city lakes looking for insects, it nests nearby on undisturbed grasslands and shrublands. Unlike most other birds, the males do most of the parenting, allowing the females to mate and leave a nest of four eggs with each of three males, on average. Migration is well underway by August. These sandpipers winter anywhere from the southern U.S. down to South America.

Published Aug. 13, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant. Photo by Pete Arnold.

When Wyoming started building dams and stocking fish in reservoirs, this fish eater moved in (first Wyoming record 1928). However, most of its 250 prey species are not usually of interest to recreational fishermen. It nests in colonies on islands or in trees, often with gulls, terns, pelicans, herons and egrets. By September, the young are ready to migrate with the black-colored adults to the coasts and southern U.S. and Mexico.

Published Aug. 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.