“The Hummingbirds’ Gift,” by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books)
As slight and zippy as its titular bird, “The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty and Renewal on Wings” is a fine way to spend an hour or so this spring. Sy Montgomery fans may have already read it as a chapter in “Birdology” (2010), but if you’re coming to it cold, the rescue and rehabilitation of Maya and Zuni will warm your heart while making you into an armchair ornithologist.
The true story takes place in the summer of 2008, when Montgomery travels from Manchester New Hampshire to San Francisco to meet the tale’s hero, Brenda Sherburn. “A 5-foot-3 powerhouse in dark bangs and a pageboy,” Sherburn dedicated part of her life to hummingbird rehabilitation. That’s right — those tiny, buzzing birds, the smallest of which weighs just a gram and the largest, classified as an Andean “giant,” measures only 8 inches long — are the most vulnerable birds in the sky and there are people like Brenda who take in abandoned or injured babies in an attempt to nurture them back into the wild.
As Montgomery relates her adventures with Brenda and the hummingbirds, she shares dozens of fun facts about the birds Aztecs believed were reincarnated warriors and the Portuguese call “flower kissers.” Did you know there are at least 240 different species, they’re the only birds that can hover and fly backward, and their forked tongues are so long they extend to the rear of the skull and lie on top of the bone when they’re not being used to lap nectar?
It’s all quite fascinating and takes about as long to read as a good nap. While readers will cheer for the two babies as they overcome various obstacles on their way to rejoining nature, Montgomery sees in the process of caring for them a parable of sorts. If we can care enough about the “most gossamer of birds,” she writes, then perhaps we can “heal our sweet, green, broken world.”