by Melanie Furr, Atlanta Audubon Director of Education
When I started at Atlanta Audubon a little more than five years ago, having a live education bird was just a dream for the future. I had been working with the ambassador birds at AWARE Wildlife Center—hawks, owls, and crows--and had seen first-hand the impact that a live bird makes on people of all ages. Little did I imagine that I would one day become the custodian for the tiniest of wildlife ambassadors, a hummingbird. You met the latest addition to the Atlanta Audubon flock, our education bird Shep, in the June issue of Wingbars, but now that he has settled in to his new role, you may be interested to learn a little more about him.
Found beneath a window at a school last fall, presumably after striking the glass, Shep was taken to AWARE Wildlife Center for treatment for a broken wing. Unfortunately, broken bones are tricky to set and fuse quickly in birds, especially in a tiny bird like a hummingbird, and Shep’s wing injury couldn’t be repaired. Knowing my desire to have an ambassador bird for Atlanta Audubon and noting Shep’s calm temperament, AWARE’s Director of Animal Care suggested that I apply for the permits to take on his care. Keeping any bird protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (or any part of a bird, like a feather) requires a permit from the United State Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as a permit from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The application is lengthy and involved. In addition to detailing my experience caring for birds, I had to provide descriptions, photos, and/or diagrams of Shep’s enclosure, perching, carriers, feeders, and diet, as well as lesson plans detailing how he would be included in education programs. Once my application was completed and mailed, I waited, checking on Shep each Tuesday during my regular volunteer shift at AWARE. Finally, in early April, my application was approved, and I officially became the caretaker of this tiny miracle.
Shep’s care isn’t complicated, but he does need to be checked on throughout the day. Hummingbirds, as you probably know, have such short legs that they are unable to walk, so Shep’s mobility is limited, to say the least. He can sidestep along his perches, and he has figured out how to locomote by flapping and hopping at the same time, but he occasionally flutters a bit too far from his feeders and needs some help. He spends much more time perching than a wild bird would, so he has perches of different widths and textures in his enclosure (an 18”x18”x12” terrarium) to minimize foot problems; his favorite perch is a silicone bracelet that says “Bird Buddy.” Since he isn’t eating insects as he would in the wild, Shep drinks a nectar available to zoos and wildlife rehabilitators that is fortified with protein and vitamins. I’ve offered flightless fruit flies on a few occasions, but so far he looks at them with suspicion and disdain. At dusk, I swap out his fortified nectar (which might spoil overnight) with the boiled sugar water I feed my backyard hummers so that he will have breakfast ready when he wakes up. Just like a kid with a sweet tooth, Shep perks up when he sees the little feeder with the purple flower; he knows dessert is served! Bath time and enrichment are also a part of our daily routine. Shep loves bathing, which we accomplish with a mist bottle and a wet leaf which he shimmies all over, or sometimes I take him outside to wiggle in the dew. For enrichment, I take Shep on walks (carrying him on a small tray), provide fresh native flowers for him to taste, and try to change up the scenery as often as possible. He seems to like riding in the car and watching the world go by at flight speed.
In the short time that I’ve been Shep’s custodian, I’ve been amazed by his intelligence and spunk. I shouldn’t be surprised that a bird with the instinct to migrate hundreds of miles across an ocean would perk up in recognition when we approach my home or the Atlanta Audubon office, but I’m impressed nonetheless. Keenly observant, he notices everything, and he responds to my voice as well. He likes to explore colorful objects with his tongue and is curious, but sometimes cautious, about new things in his environment (like the fruit flies). Not being able to fly doesn’t keep him from exercising his wings, and I suspect that as he molts and replaces some damaged wing and tail feathers, he’ll continue to improve his mobility, though he will never fly again. That this tiny bird even survived his collision with a window is remarkable, however, and he faces the world each day with bright eyes, in spite of his disability. I’m learning from him everyday, and I can’t wait to see how he inspires and educates others. Stay tuned for opportunities to meet Shep soon!