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Book Review: Fastest Things on Wings

By (May 30, 2015) No Comment

Fastest Things on Wings:fastest things on wings

Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood

by Terry Masear

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

Readers coming to Terry Masear’s magical debut Fastest Things on Wings will doubtless be unaware that there even exists such a baroque job as “hummingbird rehabber,” but this is this is just what Masear has been doing since 2005, with a degree of success attested by a very long list of relieved customers. She and her fellow rehabbers in Southern California have taken 40,000 panicked phone calls in the last ten years from people with injured hummingbirds in need of rescue, and Masear has succeeded in saving thousands of these injured or disoriented birds.

She tells a winning anecdote, and Fastest Things on Wings is full of them – stories of the hopeful humans she tries to reassure, stories of her fellow rehabbers, sharing her dedication to do the impossible for their tiny patients, and most of all stories of the hummingbirds themselves, creatures of such mind-boggling delicacy and speed that each one seems more like an urgent whisper than a living thing. The central engine of Masear’s book is her unflagging amazement at every aspect of her charges – and her smooth, lively prose’s ability to convey that amazement:

I gazed in wonder at the skill and craftsmanship involved in sculpting this elegant work of art. As with origami, it would take a human being hundreds of hours of patient practice to create a structure equally beautiful and functional. Like snowflakes, every hummingbird nest is unique, its color and design dependent upon available materials and the mother’s species, time constraints, and experience. Despite the hundreds of nests I have admired over the years, each new one that comes in mesmerizes me all over again. Like seeing William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand” and “heaven in a wild flower,” looking at hummingbirds’ astonishing creations opens the door to a magical and otherworldly realm.

Although the bulk of the book is concerned with the hummingbirds whose natural lives have been drastically interrupted – by outdoor fans, but house cats, by heavy rainstorms, by any number of things than can spell danger to a living being that weighs about as much as a paperclip – Masear can’t help herself and often offers fascinating digressions about the natural history and behavior of wild hummingbirds, including some facts that even her most citified readers will find joyfully baffling:

Researchers attribute hummingbirds’ ability to return to the same feeders after migrating thousands of miles to their exceptional spatial memory. Migratory hummingbirds can remember to within inches the precise location and height of a single feeder they frequented before heading south for the winter. If a feeder hanging on a long wire in the fall is attached to a shorter wire for the following spring, a returning hummingbird that has completed a several-thousand-mile journey will initially hover at the lower height the feeder was hanging at six months earlier. Nobody knows how they do this.

When one of her rehabbed birds is finally ready to take to the air, Masear is exhilerated: “… Pepper begins her spiral, ascending weightlessly into the heavens on gossamer wings. At a dizzying altitude, she soars over the buildings and trees, elevating higher, faster, stronger, and fearlessly into the vast unknown.”

“I am flying,” she writes. Readers will be too.