Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hummingbird rescue!

In the yard this morning, as I watched the chickens scratching, pecking, and dirt bathing, I noticed a male Broad-billed Hummingbird that seemed in distress. He flitted from one feeder to the next, trying each of a half dozen in turn without staying long enough for a decent drink. When he finally sat a moment and turned his profile to me, I saw the problem: a crusty black bump at the tip of his bill.

I ran inside and found Tom. "There's a Broad-billed out there with something on his bill! Can you help me trap him?"

Tom watched out the window until the bird reappeared. "The remote control on the trap is still not working," he said. (It got soaked in a ferocious thunderstorm last week and hasn't been the same since.) "Why don't we try luring him into the chicken coop?" Brilliant.

We hung two feeders, one in the doorway and another inside, and within minutes the desperate bird tried to drink from both feeders before flying toward the back of the coop. With a little gentle corraling from Tom, our patient was soon in hand.

The bump is the head of a bee or wasp, shackling the bill and
preventing the bird from feeding properly.
Up close, I confirmed that the lump was the hard carapace of an insect, a bee or wasp. Only the head remained, impaled on the bill. The bird couldn't insert his bill into most feeders or flowers, nor could he open it to catch insects. I'd seen this sort of thing before both in person and in photos, but what I'd never seen until now was injury to the bill from the carcass.
A ring of raw, swollen bill tissue on the body side
of the insect's head is a bad sign.

A hummingbird's bill is mostly living tissue, vulnerable to damage from the sharp edges of the insect's exoskeleton, decomposition of its tissues, or both. This bill looked bad, as though the tip might be necrotic. Removing the bird's handicap would not be easy or painless. A pang of dread clutched at my heart.

Armed with high-power reading glasses and banding forceps, I performed the removal as gently and quickly as possible. The bird cried as the crusty carcass came off in bits, and I kept apologizing for the pain I was causing him (he couldn't possibly understand, but it eased my own pain a little). Once it was off, a little blood welled up in the ring-shaped wound—a sign of healthy underlying tissue. He stopped crying and experimentally licked out his tongue. Definitely a good sign.

I washed the wound, applied a thin film of antibiotic ointment to the top and bottom of the bill (taking care to avoid the edges where it might get into his mouth), and gave him a long drink from a feeder. To recognize him if he visited us again, Tom and I banded, measured, and weighed him. He felt like nothing in my hand, and the scale confirmed that he had been slowly starving. Just 2.8 grams, compared to 3.2 to 3.7 grams for healthy, unencumbered male Broad-billeds that we have banded recently.

The wound looks awful, but the pink color and slight bleeding
are signs of healthy tissue.

Back outside, he lay in my hand for a few seconds before departing. Hummingbirds are tough, and this little survivor is welcome to stay in our yard as long as he needs to recuperate.

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides/Bird Watcher's Digest Backyard Bird Guides)Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds (T.F.H. Wild Bird Series)


MJ said...

I'm so glad he found his way into *your* yard!

MJ said...

I'm so glad he found his way into "your" yard!

Anonymous said...

I echo MJ's sentiment. That's one very lucky hummingbird.

Sheri said...

Thanks for the kudos. We felt lucky to have been able to help, and it's the least we could do after all hummingbirds have done for us. ;>

One interesting side note is that he had a surprising amount of body fat (visible in the hollow of the throat) for a bird so underweight. It seems likely that he was able to get just enough sugar water to keep his energy levels up and store a little as fat but couldn't maintain muscle mass without a source of protein, amino acids, and electrolytes.

Arlene said...

Very interesting indeed. Glad it ended up at your place.

I just sent you a photo of my "problem" hummingbird. It has a cactus spine sticking out of its chest. I need some advice!

Sheri said...

Sounds like the problem resolved itself, Arlene - thank goodness!

Kathie Brown said...

oh my! What a story. I wouldn't have known what to do! Thank God you were there! Thank you for rescuing it!