For the Birds Radio Program: Esmerelda

Original Air Date: July 17, 1992

What’s it like to have a hummingbird in the house? (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


Last week, I received a hummingbird with an injured wing. It appears sprained rather than broken, but hummingbirds are too darned tiny to be absolutely sure. If my skinny eight-year-old daughter Katie, who weighs 62 pounds, wanted to play on a see-saw with some hummingbirds, she’d need at least 9,920 Ruby-throats just to get her off the ground. Our hummingbird weighs only a tenth of an ounce. You could mail ten of them with a single Elvis stamp. We’re talking tiny here.

This particular hummingbird is a female. The ones with red throats are adult males. White-throated ones with deeply forked tails, green in the center and blackish on the pointed sides are young males. Females always have rounded tails with white spots at the tips of the outer feathers. We’re calling our particular hummer Esmerelda, which my children chose because it made them think of emeralds, a perfect image for a tiny green jewel.

Esmerelda may have a tiny brain, but she’s an intelligence worth reckoning with. Her bright little eyes take in everything around her. Hummingbirds are so tiny and vulnerable that you’d think they’d be scared of everything, but they’re surprisingly fearless. Maybe Esmerelda figures she’s too small and helpless to protect herself anyway, so she might as well enjoy life as long as she can.

She sits on a tiny twig—her strong, grasping feet are much to tiny to reach around even a toddler’s finger—and we wedge the twig in at the top of an open container so she can look all around. We keep a sugar water feeder within her reach all the time, and five or six times a day, one of my children or I take her outside to feed from real flowers, where she sips nectar and grabs tiny insects. Her beak is too tiny to manage mosquitoes or even big aphids, but she does take bugs too small for me to identify, from those red spider mites to gnats the size of a dust particle.

When we carry her out, she reminds me of a queen being carried about by servants as she sits royally on her perch, looking for all the world as if she felt it was perfectly natural, and even to be expected, that people would attend to her every need.

Although Esmerelda’s feet are too tiny to grasp our fingers, just holding the twig she’s on gives us an incredible sense of the life force of a hummingbird. Even as Esmerelda rests quietly, the stick vibrates furiously with her racing heart and rapid breathing. I know of no data about a Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s heart rate—it’s just too fast and the hummer too tiny to measure. The most rapid avian heart rate on record is for a Blue-throated Hummingbird, an Arizona species much bigger than our Ruby-throat. This hummigbird’s heart beat fully 1,260 beats per minute when resting. The Ruby-throat’s heart most assuredly beats much faster than this.

The woman who found Esmerelda unknowingly allowed sugar water to drip on her, making her feathers horribly sticky. At least 20 of her belly feathers had torn out and were stuck to her feet or to her perch when she came. I had to bathe her twice. And it took six hours for her droppings to return to a normal color—she’d been eating nothing but sugar water laced with food coloring for two days. Food coloring may not be harmful, but there’s no good reason to use it, since hummingbirds are just as easily attracted to feeders without it. [We now know that food coloring is dangerous.] Esmerelda likes to drink drops of sugar water right off my finger. Her tiny, thin tongue, which can protrude a full inch beyond her beak, looks and feels as delicate as gossamer.

It’s a big responsibility keeping this tiniest of birds alive, but it’s also a big pleasure. In nature, hummingbirds can live surprisingly long lives—even beyond ten years. I hope Esmerelda can return to her wild world within a few weeks, ready to boast to all her friends about her amazing stay among the primates.