By Melanie Furr, Director of Education
September marked one year since Sibley came into my care as an Atlanta Audubon education ambassador, a few months after our very first ambassador, Shep, joined the flock. Although I had always aspired to create a live bird ambassador program when I joined the organization almost six years ago, I never imagined I would become the (world’s only?) caregiver for non-flighted Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in education. Although Shep’s time with us was too short, getting an intimate look at Sibley’s life during the course of the past year—and sharing him with others through education programs—has been a joy and a privilege.
Caring for a non-releasable hummingbird is a little different than caring for hawks, owls, and other wild birds typically used in education programs that can generally be left alone. Although he is self-feeding, I never leave Sibley unattended for more than a few hours to ensure that he always has access to his feeders. (Thank goodness for family and friends that help with bird-sitting.) With legs that are too short for walking, hummingbirds that can’t fly have very limited mobility, but Sibley manages quite well. He can sidestep along his perches, and he flutter-hops to get from one perch to another. Because he spends all his time on his feet, he has a variety of perches of different widths and textures to minimize potential foot problems. Silicone bracelets, which offer some cushion, are a favorite. He divides most of his time between two large terrariums situated in sunny windows at my home and at the Atlanta Audubon office, where he can watch the birds and enjoy the view. He has a smaller carrier for riding in the car, which I strap behind the seatbelt on the booster seat I have fashioned so that he can look out the windows. Between our regular commute and driving to programs and meetings, Sibley really gets around town, and he definitely recognizes our regular routes. He perks up whenever we approach my neighborhood or the office, which shouldn’t be too surprising for a bird that is able to navigate across open ocean during migration.
Not flying hasn’t slowed Sibley’s appetite. Like other hummingbirds, he has a naturally high metabolism and eats close to three times his body weight daily (at four grams, he weighs just a little more than a penny). He has distinct taste preferences, too. His primary diet is a nectar made from a powder (imported from Germany) that is fortified with protein, vitamins, and minerals to provide the nutrition he needs since he can’t catch insects. Each morning, I also grind up non-flighted fruit flies and mix them with his nectar for added protein. (People ask why I don’t offer fruit flies or other small insects for him to catch in his enclosure, but hummingbirds don’t glean insects with their beaks. Instead they have a surprisingly wide gape for gulping down insects in flight.) Sibley prefers the plain nectar to his “bug juice,” but he doesn’t drink either as greedily as he guzzles down the sugar water that I give him at bedtime each night. His crop, the muscular sac near the throat that temporarily stores food, bulges like a water balloon after he takes his fill. I wondered about this behavior, as Shep never seemed to fill his crop like Sibley, and did some research into hummingbird crops. Interestingly, studies with Anna’s Hummingbirds showed that because larger meals increase body mass, and therefore flight cost, birds that are territory owners tend to optimize food intake, feeding for shorter periods and filling their crops less full. Individuals without territories that may be chased away at any time, however, minimize potentially risky intrusions by ingesting as much nectar as possible when they get a chance to feed. Silly Sibley, slow down--you have free refills and no competition!
Meeting Sibley’s daily needs to keep him healthy is just a small part of his care requirements. Equally important is providing enrichment to keep him stimulated and active. When the weather is nice, Sibley spends time in an enclosure on my screened porch, where he can enjoy the breeze and the bird sounds. I also take him on walks (carrying him on a small tray), provide fresh native flowers for him to taste, and add color to his enclosure with fresh greenery. When I can find them, I catch small spiders from their webs, usually with a pencil, and dangle them in front of Sibley for him to eat. Sibley has learned what’s coming when he sees the pencil and perks up excitedly, ready to wolf down his snack. One of his favorite activities is taking a bath, which he accomplishes by wiggling on leaves misted with water. (You can see Sibley catching spiders and taking baths on social media using hashtag #survivorsibley.) Providing enrichment is more challenging in winter, when the garden is dormant and the temperatures are too cold to go outside. I’ll continue to add new perches and greenery to keep him stimulated, and we’ll probably make more use of the swing that I have fashioned for his enclosure. “Sibley’s room” (my office) will have an extra space heater to make sure he stays toasty, and we’ll crank it up during baths to keep him comfortable. I’ll place a heating pad under half of his terrarium for extra warmth at night. Fortunately, winters in Georgia don’t last too long.
Aside from having an up-close look at a hummingbird’s life, what has been most rewarding about caring for Sibley has been developing a relationship of trust with him and having the opportunity to share him with others. Sibley knows and responds to my voice, and readily steps into my hand or hops onto a perch when I need to move him, though I don’t handle him unnecessarily. (Although he trusts me completely, he is still a wild bird and doesn’t enjoy being touched.) He knows our routines but is comfortable in new surroundings as well. Once nervous around crowds, he is now completely at ease around people, even preening in front of an audience. And he does draw and audience! Whether we are stopped by passersby as we are walking into the Atlanta Audubon office, speaking at a garden club or school, or attending a festival with hundreds of visitors, Sibley never fails to make an impression. And while people are admiring him, I have the opportunity to talk to them about why they shouldn’t use pesticides or buy nectar with red food dye or why they should turn off unnecessary lighting at night and add native plants to their yards, as well as other ways to protect birds. Seeing this tiny, but mighty individual is both educational and inspiring, and I am grateful for opportunity to be inspired by him daily.
If you are interested in scheduling a program with Ambassador Bird Sibley, please visit our website.