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When Hummingbirds Come Home


Commentator Julie Zickefoose is a wildlife rehabilitator. Rescuing birds is her specialty. On this program, she has described capturing and freeing a grocery-store sparrow and placing a baby mourning dove back in the nest after a fall onto a busy street. Earlier this year, she told the story of a family of orphaned hummingbirds raised and then released into the wild. Well, this is the story of their return.


Magic is a constant companion to those who work with injured and orphaned wild birds. Watching young birds grow is almost miraculous; they change so fast from day to day. A squirming, blind pink hatchling no bigger than my fingertip may be feathered and flying only two weeks later. But the neat stuff really starts when I release my foundlings.

Two summers ago, I raised three orphaned ruby-throated hummingbirds in an aviary inside my house. When I released them, they didn't exactly leave. They hung around the yard, zipping up to say hello, hanging in midair, looking into our eyes, trying to convey something, it seemed. One I raised last summer would hover in front of my face, chipping in an irritated way until I held my finger out for her to land on. We'd have a chat, then she'd rocket off on some pressing hummingbird business.

Everyone who met the three hummingbirds I raised and released asked if I thought they'd returned to our Ohio sanctuary the following spring. An image of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico yawning beneath it like a huge mouth, would pop into my head, and I'd hesitate before answering. Those baby hummingbirds would have to fly from southern Ohio to the Gulf Coast. There they'd double their weight before launching themselves on a 20-hour, 500-mile, non-stop flight across the Gulf, trying to reach landfall in Mexico. If their wings stop beating for more than a few seconds, if a storm hit, if a headwind sprang up, they'd fail, and there would be glittering green feathers in the flotsam. All I could say was, `I sure hope they come back.'

My three hummingbird orphans left on migration in September of 2003, and I spent the winter wondering if they'd made it to Mexico and the early spring wondering if they'd make it back home. On April 17, 2004, my husband, Bill, stepped out, coffee mug in hand, to take the morning sun. A male ruby-throated hummingbird zipped up, hovered in front of his face, then poked his beak in between each of Bill's fingers. It was as close to a handshake as a hummingbird could manage.

Later that day I looked out to see two male hummingbirds sitting shoulder to shoulder on a twig by our front door, one that had been their favorite as youngsters. I rummaged around until I found the small feeder they'd used the summer before and filled it with the protein-rich solution the three had been raised on. As I reached to hang it from a branch, three adult male ruby-throats wove through my arms and around my head, fighting to be the first to feed. Six months and two ocean crossings behind them, my hummingbirds were home, right where they belonged.

SIEGEL: Wildlife rehabilitator Julie Zickefoose finds plenty of opportunities to help injured and orphaned birds near her home in Whipple, Ohio.

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie Zickefoose