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Big-Hearted Rescuers Take Tiny Hummers Under Wing

by Fred Dickey

Originally published July 1, 2012

They’re pretty tough guys, born to pick fights, and as possessive as a Bedouin with his own water hole. If they were a lot bigger, you wouldn’t dare come between them and their food.

But we love them because they’re tiny and they’re cute. They flit and buzz their way into our hearts so that we cater to their every whim. Or think we do.

However, it’s possible to love something to death, and that’s the peril hummingbirds sometimes face because of our affection. When bad things happen, their best friends are often Marion Stacey and Susan Stacey, a mother-daughter team who have operated the nonprofit Hummingbird Rescue out of their home in Chula Vista since 1988. Susan has appeared with her hummers on several TV programs, including with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno.

The Staceys want us to understand the tiny birds as well as love them. For example, Susan tells us to save our money and not buy commercial feeding mixes. Just use regular white sugar mixed to a one-to-four ratio with water. A lower ratio and the bird doesn’t get the water it needs — just as when you drink a regular Coke, the sugary syrup makes you even thirstier.

Susan says to save the food coloring for baking. We put it in feeders because we like the color; the birds don’t care. Hummers are attracted to the yellow/red mouth of the feeder, not the color of the sugar water. There is no science that proves food coloring is bad for them, but if it’s not beneficial, why take the chance?

Susan, a licensed rehabilitator and trained ornithologist, cares for sick and injured hummingbirds day and night while maintaining a full-time job at the San Diego Zoo. Working alongside her is her 82-year-old mother, Marion, also a licensed rehabber.

The two women, assisted part time by Susan’s sister, Lynn Stacey, care for 400 to 600 birds each year at an out-of-pocket cost of about $14,000. They get no funding except for donations. Because of the need to maintain strict control of the birds’ environment, they offer no public visitation, but they do make appearances with educational birds before groups.

Often, Susan will complete her day’s work at the zoo, then go out at midnight to pick up a wounded bird. Once, she got a call from Alaska seeking advice about an injured hummingbird. Susan ended up being given a round-trip ticket to Anchorage to bring the bird back to Chula Vista.

“I fell in love with these little birds, and it just grabbed hold of me when I realized what good I could do. And with my family helping, it’s been no stopping.”

Most rescued hummers are infant chicks that mainly got in trouble by falling out of nests or because of downed nests. On the ground, they are at risk from predators such as cats, mice, crows and scrub jays.

They are also in danger when well-intentioned people try to feed them. Though their tongues are twice the length of their bills, they cannot eat from saucers. Another danger is when people see a chick alone in a nest and assume it has been abandoned. “Watch the nest carefully for an hour,” Susan advises, “and see if the mother returns before intervening.”

When they come under rescue care, 90 percent of uninjured birds will be released healthy. If injured, about half will survive.

Hummingbirds are not low-maintenance creatures. A chick must be fed every half-hour during daylight. An adult bird must eat from dawn to dusk and consume at least its weight every day. When that’s what a bird has to do, every food source could be the last water hole in the desert.

When responsibility for that schedule falls upon the Staceys, they are, in effect, prisoners of love.

Primarily, the birds eat flower nectar and augment it with small insects for protein. Household feeders are the equivalent of fast-food stops. By shopping from flower to flower, they also help the pollination process.

Their wings beat 13 times per second, and they are the only birds that can fly backward and upside down. At night or in cold weather, the birds go into torpor and their heartbeat goes from 250 beats per minute to 25 or 30.

If the weather stays below 40 degrees for any time, they will die of the cold. On the coast, feeders can stay up year-round; inland, they should come down the first time a cold snap is expected to take the thermometer below 40 degrees, Susan says.

Most birds from here migrate to Mexico from the end of August until October. They start to return around the first of the year. No amount of feeder enticement will forestall that. Of the few birds that do stay here year around, most are older ones that can no longer manage the trip.

A common misconception, Susan says, is that a male will dominate a feeder and drive all others away and then claim the females. The truth is, Susan says, the feeder guardian can be either male or female, and the motive is not sexual but to claim the food source. Later in the year, when the migration starts, there are too many birds to chase away, so the guardian just throws up its wings and lets them all eat.

Other experts disagree. They say that males do, in fact, guard the feeders for purposes of sexual dominance in the spring and early summer, then relax their vigilance when the breeding season is over.

When asked why she would spend her money and give up her evenings and weekends, month after month, year after year, to take care of tiny birds, Susan says, “I don’t have children, so I guess this might satisfy some maternal instinct. When you think of a bird that had no chance to survive until you cared for it, and you watched it heal, then it flew back into the wild healthy and free, you know it was worth all the time and effort.”

It takes a big heart to serve tiny creatures in peril.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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