By Jessica Zitter

 

It took me a while to notice the hummingbird. She must have flown by my window 5 or 6 times before registering in my peripheral vision. When I finally looked up, I saw her standing on a tiny branch of the Monterey Pine outside our second-floor home-office window, a mere 3 feet from my desk. She was standing very still, uncharacteristic for a hummingbird, and staring at something near her tiny feet. Looking closer, I noticed a tiny bulge in the branch. She began to poke at the bump with her beak, and then appeared to spit something onto it. She continued, like a baker mixing a special dough. Suddenly, she stopped, and then abruptly flew away, falling off the branch like a champion diver before achieving lift and humming away.

I was intrigued. I stopped my writing and waited. She appeared again, this time from a different direction, returning to the same branch and performing her spitting ceremony. This continued for the next several days, routine as clockwork. Every 5 minutes or so, she would arrive with more liquid to spread into the growing bump, tiny but enlarging by the day. For the next several weeks, I watched this industrious mother as she followed an ancient recipe for creating a nest for her offspring. With this excitement unfolding, it was challenging to focus on my work, and I had to close the blinds to get any serious writing done. The bird’s anticipation became mine, and then my family and friends’. We prepared for their emergence by watching videos of roosting hummingbirds and their hatchlings, beginning to understand the totality of effort that would go into the raising of these tiny lives. We finally learned of their arrival when the mother, her stomach filled with collected juices and bugs, regurgitated the nourishment directly into 2 tiny beaks, which barely rose above the edge of the thimble-sized nest. The house turned into a virtual nature channel, our family never tiring of this wonder.

The chicks grew at a remarkable rate. One of them was particularly daring, and occasionally hopped up on the side of the nest to flap its wings, preparing for the day when it would leave the nest. It seemed very precarious, but I’d seen hatchlings do this frantic flapping in the videos and knew it was a natural step toward flying the coop.

But then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had entered the bird blind with my binoculars. Something wasn’t right. Something black, like a tiny ball of wool, was hanging down from the nest. Looking closer I realized it was one of the chicks, its leg tangled in the nest, wriggling desperately. Its mother flew frantically back and forth, emitting staccato squeaks. I stood stock still, panic rising fast in my chest. Surely the mother could fix this. Maybe this had happened to her before. These nests were so tiny, it made sense that a chick could fall out. She must have a plan. Would she position herself under her chick and fly vertically to unhook it? Maybe the struggling bird’s movement alone would dislodge it, and its mother would catch and return it safely to the nest. Maybe it had already learned to fly and would simply float down. It took only a few seconds for me to realize that this was all magical thinking. The young bird that we had all been rooting for was doomed.

Suddenly, my critical care physician instincts kicked in. I had to do something. Lowering my blinds against the distress was simply not an option.

I remembered that my friend Sip is a veterinarian with a special interest in birds. I dialed her number and left a panicked message, begging her to call me back immediately. I had heard somewhere that one should never touch a nest or its occupants—but how could I just sit there and do nothing?

I needed a tool. Something that could reach out from the second-story window to save the bird. I ran downstairs and returned with a broomstick, dustpan, and duct tape. Kneeling on the scratchy sisal rug, I furiously sutured the dustpan to the broom handle with several layers of tape, tearing the end with my teeth. I flung open the windows and hoisted the heavy contraption toward the bird, slowly so as not to smash it against its nest. When the dustpan was right underneath the bird, I lifted, hoping to gently dislodge its tiny little leg and free it. It stopped moving, probably out of shock and fear. I realized I was traumatizing this poor creature even further by my actions. But I was in too deep to stop. And maybe, just maybe, I could save it. I pushed up, more forcefully this time, and the baby bird unhooked and fell into the dustpan. I pulled the dustpan contraption into the room, my arms exhausted, careful not to touch the bird, who lay panting in the pan. The mother flew back and forth outside the window. I needed to get this little creature back into the safety of its nest, the size of a tiny espresso cup 20 feet above the ground. I reached out toward the nest again with the makeshift bird ambulance and when in position, gently angled it down. Using all of my remaining strength, I gently jiggled the pan, trying to slide the bird back home. But it overshot and plummeted to the ground below.

I screamed. I felt a sudden rush of nausea, and then a chill. I ran down the stairs and rushed to the base of the tree, terrified to see the havoc I had wreaked. There, on the ground below, was my little bird, on its side, still moving a little. Her mother was flying back and forth above. I thought that maybe I could bring it into the kitchen and feed it sugar water to revive it.

Suddenly my phone rang. It was Sip. “What’s going on?” she asked. I blurted out the story. “Walk away from the bird,” she ordered. “Jessica, it is almost certainly going to die but the only chance it could possibly have is getting its mother to feed it on the ground. She won’t come near it if you stay there.”

Of course she was right. Suddenly, my fantasy evaporated. It was sheer craziness to think that I, with my big human hands, could fix this. Interfering had only made things worse. It was time for me to step back and let nature take its course.

The next hour was horrible. I followed Sip’s orders and went back inside. Pacing around my house, I imagined the breath leaving the little soul I’d left outside on the dirt. But I couldn’t stay away, and when I returned, it was dead. A sudden wave of guilt engulfed me. Had I just made everything worse for the bird family? Had I taken a natural event and made it into a tragedy? I buried my little friend and said a small prayer for it. I’ve cried several times since.

This death haunted me for weeks. As an advocate for changing the way we care for patients at the end of life, my role in this bird’s ending felt antithetical to everything I preach. Had I just put the young hummingbird on the veterinary equivalent of what I call the “end-of-life conveyor belt,” where doctors act as technicians, nay automatons, just “doing something” so that we don’t have to sit with our own discomfort about death?

A week later, something happened. Sitting at my desk, I looked up to see the mother hummingbird just outside my window, perfectly still except for her rapidly beating wings. For 5 long seconds, her eyes fixed on mine, as if she were trying to communicate something. I don’t believe in animal spirits, and I consider myself religiously agnostic on a good day. But in those 5 seconds, something shifted. I realized that the guilt and shame I’d been feeling was too simplistic.

I recognized that while my cross-species life-saving efforts had been uninformed; they did not constitute the end-of-life conveyor belt. It had been a Hail Mary move to be sure, but one that I believed, while rapidly stitching together my broom contraption, might restore the little patient to full function and flight. Aggressive intervention isn’t a shameful act in itself, even if it does cause suffering. The real shame is when Hail Mary interventions are performed by robotic protocol, without any real belief that they will work. It’s not about the operation, but the beliefs and intent of the operator.

Since that sad day 3 years ago, I’ve watched other young hummingbirds fly away from that nest right outside my window. Instead of stinging with shame or grief, I’m reminded that there can be something beautiful in the act of life-saving—even when it doesn’t work.

Click here to read the article in JAMA