It's hard to believe that it's been nearly a year since I first met her, but one glance at her chart removes any doubt. Species: Anna's Hummingbird. Patient Number: 11-2241. Date of Admission: 08/15/2011. Yes, 11 months ago is really when she came into our care. It was undoubtedly the worst day of her young life because it began with an outdoor housecat using her as a toy. Fortunately, the cat did not take her life, but he did take some of her dignity by pulling out every one of her tail feathers.
The cat also inflicted several small puncture wounds and bruises on the miniscule bird. We prescribed a course of antibiotics to prevent these wounds from becoming infected, and they healed cleanly and quickly without any complications. This left us with a healthy, feisty, but still tailless hummingbird, buzzing around her enclosure like a tiny, rudderless airship. Releasing her without a tail would have made her a much easier target for Merlins, Sharp-shinned Hawks and other winged predators small enough to take notice of a hummingbird. In order to increase her chances for survival, we decided to maintain her in care until her feathers grew back.
Unfortunately, hummingbirds only replace their tail feathers once a year. While many birds will grow back traumatically lost feathers fairly quickly, this little hummingbird's body was stubbornly adhering to her annual molt cycle. Summer turned to fall and then fall into winter with no signs of new feather growth. By spring we were beginning to wonder if the little bird would ever regain the feathers she had lost, but in June her internal clock reached "tail feather replacement time" and they finally began to grow. As the tail feathers grew in, the hummingbird's flight went from that of a wobbly bumble bee to that of a precision flying machine. By mid-July she was finally ready to resume her life in the wild.
The hummingbird was released on July 17 at the PAWS Annual General Meeting. The staff, volunteers, board members, donors and other supporters that were present watched as she flew straight up out of her release box, hovered for a moment overhead and then disappeared into the trees. It was a very fulfilling moment for me not only because of the joy I felt at finally seeing the bird fly free, but also because I was able to share the experience with so many people whose support had made her care and eventual release possible.
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