The Broken Wing

Written By: Mary Ann  Mulvihill-Decker

She gazed up at me with a tiny black eye, tilting her iridescent head. I didn’t move. In my hand was a thin plastic syringe that had been adapted to look like a flower. Instead of a needle, it had plastic petals. Instead of medicine, it held a nutritious formula perfectly designed for a recuperating hummingbird. Which is what I so badly wanted her to be.

The hummingbird had a broken wing, injured when a well-meaning homeowner tried to rescue her in a garage. A miniscule bandage now held the wing against her body like a splint. I could hardly imagine such a fragile, complicated little wing ever healing. It wouldn’t unless she took the rich nectar we were offering every fifteen minutes.

I remained still, pointing the tube at her delicate body perched regally on a small branch. She turned away. Finally she inserted her needle-like beak into the syringe and took a long drink. I sighed. When she was done, I reset the timer and went on to feed some nestlings in the incubator.

As a volunteer at the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, I am privileged to assist many injured, orphaned and ill wild animals. Most are birds—from freshly hatched songbirds to adult mute swans whose necks are longer than my arm, whose webbed feet are larger than my hand.

The most vulnerable animals here live in incubators. Volunteers have woven nests shaped like infant’s hats. They are put in bowls, covered with tissues and filled with newborn songbirds.

As I opened the incubator door, tiny beaks on sinewy necks stretched toward me. Into each gaping mouth, I inserted a portion of nestling formula. As soon as it was swallowed, up came each beak again begging for more. Finally sated, each baby bird then got a drop or two of water. I scooped them all up gently and replaced the tissues that lined their nests with fresh ones. I covered them lightly with another one to help them stay warm, as they aren’t yet regulating their own body temperature.

There were six bowls of nestlings to feed. One bird was so tiny he looked like an embryo with wings. But when he gaped, he was all mouth. Some were larger and will soon move into nearby fledgling cages. These babies demanded much more of the rich mixture. They seemed insatiable, but I knew to stop before they overate, as their crops were full.

Six fawns cuddled among some blankets, their soft faces alert and questioning. One of the rehabilitators arrived, her arms filled with bottles of deer formula. She sat down among them and fed them one by one. They need frequent nursing to thrive at this tender stage of life. Most are victims of what some refer to as kidnapping. Completely dependent upon their mothers, fawns lie still, hiding in the brush, as the doe forages. Unfortunately, people often find one, and assuming it is abandoned, bring it home. They feed it cow’s milk which is unsuitable for fawns, then call for help when the young animal begins to weaken. These fawns would have been fine if left alone; now they have a long road ahead but a good chance of release one day.

One of our resident animals is a doe, unable to be released into the wild as she is blind. She lives in a large outdoor enclosure and is fed daily what looks to me like an entire salad bar. Once the fawns are stabilized, they join her outside. She fosters them and through her, they learn what it is to be a deer. She enjoys the company of fawns until the day they are freed, back where they once lived, and until the next batch arrives, taken from does who search the forest in vain for their young.

Martino is a screech owl who also is not able to be released due to an old injury. He has become a “teaching animal” at the Wildlife Center. Owls of course are nocturnal, but Martino was up this afternoon, perched on the thick leather glove of one of the rehabbers, as a group of children had arrived to learn about wildlife. The woman reminded me of a medieval falconer, as she competently handled the beautiful bird.

The owl gazed at me for a long moment and I at him. Dignified and intelligent, he appeared relaxed and seemed interested to know who I was. The feeling was mutual. He blinked at me a few times and cocked his head. I blinked back, nodded and told him I was pleased to meet him.

I was honored to be in the presence of such a mysterious and elegant bird, but it was time to bathe the ducklings. I opened their aviary, speaking gently to a very young mallard. His feathers were soft and downy, his webbed feet tiny and pink. He struggled as I lifted him from his cage, taking care to contain his wings, and placed him in the bathtub. I threw in a couple of handfuls of Epsom salts since he had a sore foot. Soon he was happily dunking in the cool water with a small Canada goose and an even smaller mallard. As they bathed and played in the tub, I lined the floor of their aviary with clean towels and refreshed their water, tossing in some food pellets called “waterfowl starter”. I diced some lettuce that had been donated by the natural food market and added a handful of squiggling meal worms. Yum. The young birds had a high quality meal awaiting them.

I placed a small mirror and a feather-duster in the corner of their cage. Accustomed to the company of large broods, these items are comforting to ducklings and they snuggle against them, as if the reflection was their siblings, and the feathers, their mother.  Soon I retrieved three very clean birds, picking them up with a towel, since the oil from human skin can damage the waterproof quality of feathers. They ran right to the feather-duster, shook themselves dry and eagerly began eating the lettuce. I smiled and moved on.

High winds had brought down two nests of squirrels. The baby squirrels, only days old, were immediately placed in a box with a heating pad. Pink, hairless and partly translucent, the mammals were less than three inches long. They will not even open their eyes for weeks. But they were alive, and their tiny bodies looked perfect and miraculous. They will be fed newborn squirrel formula, progressing to juvenile formula later in the summer, if they survive. So far so good.

A grackle arrived with a severe head injury. I observed as the staff sadly but efficiently administered sedation, and then euthanasia, acknowledging the bird could not be saved. This compassionate act is known by wildlife rehabilitators as “the other release.”

The next time I arrived, I was thrilled to see the hummingbird had begun visiting the tiny nectar-filled syringes set up in her cage. We still offered ours to ensure she was ingesting sufficient calories to support her rapid metabolism. Her splint remained intact. I found myself thinking though of that tiny bird as I drifted off to sleep that night. But I dreamt of flowers.

The following week, I walked in and my heart leapt. She flew figure eights around her cage.  The wing had healed! She seemed jubilant as did the staff. Still she needed to be feeding herself 100% of the time. She was getting close.

Flowers of every shape, color, scent and variety are in bloom right now—especially at our nurseries. Particularly notable are the species whose blossoms are tubular, their enticing petals offering a parfait of nectar within. Enticing that is if you are a ruby-throated hummingbird who favors this type of bloom.

When I next returned to the rescue center, I learned the good news. The gardens of a local nursery are now temporary home to one very lucky female hummingbird, who once had a broken wing. She was released out of doors into this floral paradise, thanks to the incredible dedication, skill and compassion of the wildlife rehabilitators at our Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays. Like so many creatures they have released, she has returned to the wild, to freedom. She now grows stronger amid the delphinium, among the fuchsia and nourished by the sweet manna of beebalm and bergamot, honeysuckle and hollyhock.

She resumes her place within the web of nature, pollinating flowers, eating insects and perhaps mating. And when the light shortens and the nights grow cool, she will embark on a southern journey as remarkable, as incomparable as her exquisite beauty. She will follow imperatives, encrypted to all but her kind, which will guide her across forests, wetlands and bays, above farms, bayous and even the sea. And by the grace of God, she may well return to our South Fork carried by forces incomprehensible, compelling and elemental.