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'Mother Hummer' and her baby chicks

Shrill little peeps resonated through the room as Denise Gillen of Fallbrook lectured on hummingbirds at the Vista Library. “I think I am going to have to stop and feed them,” she said, and feed them she did – with an eyedropper fitted with an IV catheter which she placed down the throat to simulate feeding from a hummingbird’s beak. Since the chicks need to be fed every half-hour, Gillen took the birds with her to the lecture.

Gillen has worked with hummingbirds, sometimes hand-rearing them, since 1979. That was the year she became employed at the San Diego Zoo as a Hummingbird Exhibit attendant and where her coworkers began to call her “Mother Hummer.” She was with the zoo, and then the Wild Animal Park, until her retirement in 2000. During that time she made several television appearances. Gillen was well-prepared for her career, having earned a Bachelor’s degree in biology/zoology from Cal State Stanislaus.

With the abundance of wind and rain, this is the time of year that baby hummingbirds sometimes fall out of nests, Gillen shared with the group. If a chick is found, she urged the audience to call her at (760) 468-8433 or Ruth Wootten at (619) 435-4254. Wootten also worked for the zoo and rehabilitates hummingbirds.

While employed at the zoo, Gillen and Wootten began the very successful hummingbird hand-rearing program when they were inundated with orphaned and displaced hummingbird chicks after a season of heavy rains.

Hummingbirds can quickly attain a state of being called “torpor,” which is a stage similar to hibernation. Torpor usually occurs on cold nights, when the birds lower their body temperature and heart rate to conserve energy. The birds perch on outer reaches of flimsy branches so they are not as vulnerable to predators; and then revive before dawn.

A hummingbird egg is about one-half the size of a dime. The nests are made with spider webs and decorated with moss and leaves as a method of camouflage.

Their feathers are prismatic and beautifully iridescent. In our area, the most common of the hummingbirds is called Anna’s Hummingbird. Another bird found in our area, the Rufous Hummingbird, has a copper-hued head and migrates from as far north as Alaska.

There are several plants which attract hummingbirds, among them are bee balm, honeysuckle, hibiscus, butterfly bush, lantana, daylily and zinnia.

Gillen recommends a feed mixture of four parts water and one part sugar. She also said that honey should not be used. A good way to supplement the birds’ diet with protein is to set out a pan of rotting bananas, which in turn, attracts the fruit flies that they eat. The birds generally eat one-half of their body weight each day.

Hummingbirds live from eight to ten years on the average, with some living as long as fifteen years. So, if you begin to attract these tiny colorful birds to your yard they may be repeat guests for a very long time.

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