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How to free a hummingbird from a skylight

by Patricia | 7.11.11

Male black-chinned hummingbird

Like most folks, my husband, kids, and I greet spring’s arrival with relief.  The relaxing of winter’s grip, the first crack of color between sepals clutching flower buds, the sun’s liberating warmth all lighten the load my family balances gingerly as we carry it through winter’s dimly-lit cellars.  But as daylight’s gold, pink or orange borders stretch from their winter proportions to become a mazy, five in the morning ‘til nine-thirty at night field of shimmer and electrical storms, we pay particularly close attention to a tweak in light that occurs around April’s third week.  At a certain change of pitch in the sunshine’s angle and intensity, hummingbirds return to traditional nesting sites in our southeastern Utah neighborhood from snowbird resorts in Mexico.

Three species of hummingbirds frequent our feeders during the summer: black-chinned, broad-tailed, and rufous.  The black-chinned birds arrive earliest, weeks before the other two species.  Perhaps because they’re here earlier and leave later than do the rufous and broad-tailed birds, the black-chins become quite familiar, granting wondrously close contact for a wild species.  We provide them sugar water. In return, they put on Punch-and-Judy-style performances around the feeders.  Beyond that, they instruct us in the finer points of animal communication systems.  ACSs are an intriguing topic, and I’ll explore what hummingbirds have taught me about them in another post.  This post is about how to free a hummingbird from your house should one happen to fly inside.

As spring temperatures warm up, our black-chinned population becomes hyperactive.  It isn’t unusual for the greatest number of black-chins to show up at our feeders for their pre-torpor toddies just before sundown, with a few contemplative individuals lingering on the clothesline strung around our deck to gaze at the sixty-mile view as twilight falls.  The more birds that arrive during hummingbird happy hour, the more furious the territorial displays, with hummers zinging about like bullets at the OK Corral.  During the day, we prop open our front and back doors to cool the house or invite in fresh air.  But in late afternoon and early evening, when dueling reaches peak intensity, we sometimes discover that some high-velocity bird-fight has bumped a flying ace inside the house.  I’ve removed several birds from the house over the five years we’ve lived in their domain, two birds so far this spring.  All rescues to date appear to have been successful, though I always worry with these light-as-a-feather creatures that any help I try to give could go horribly wrong.

One evening in mid-June I was working in the garden when my husband and two kids came out to tell me that a hummingbird had become trapped in the kitchen skylight, where the birds often wind up when they fly in one back door or the other. The kids had a butterfly net and wanted to know if I thought that a good tool for sweeping the bird from the skylight and bringing it outside.  Generally speaking, small nets and winged creatures are a bad mix.  I went upstairs and asked the kids to find the flyswatter, but it was not in a ready-to-reach spot, and looking at the bird, I could see it felt panicked and exhausted.  It was either a female or immature male black-chinned hummer—hard to tell the difference, young males and females bearing such close resemblance.  Its bill opened as it panted and it banged its head repeatedly against the heavy plastic bubble of the skylight—to its eye, the only seeming path to freedom.  I asked for the net and a chair.  Climbing onto the chair I raised the net and tilted it so that its metal rim brushed against the feet of the bird.  Previous experiences handling a white-throated swift and insight gleaned from other hummingbird rescues have suggested that birds have a perching reflex.  In the case of a frantic hummingbird trapped in a skylight, if you touch its feet gently with a wire or metal rod having the diameter of clothes hanger wire or the wire handle of a flyswatter, the bird will often stop flying and perch on the wire.  This provides it some respite as well as enables you to get it into position to remove it from the skylight trap.

It took my coaxing the bird to perch four or five times before it stayed long enough that I could catch it.  I prefer to catch trapped birds with my hand, but before I describe how that happened, I’d like to explain why catching a hummingbird by hand is risky business—for the bird.

Male black-chinned hummingbirds average around 3 ¾ inches long crown to tail tip and weigh approximately 0.12 ounces, about the heft of one-and-a-half pennies, with female hummingbirds weighing slightly more. By comparison, another spectacular migratory flyer and cousin to the hummingbird, the much larger white-throated swift, sports a wingspan between 16-18 inches with the whole bird weighing a mere 1.6 ounces.  How such near-weightless creatures row hundreds of miles of airspace—which in the Southwestern U.S.’s springtide include very rough and prevailing wind currents—is one of the great prodigies of nature.  When we admire Canadian geese flying overhead in the spring, long necks outstretched, broad wings paddling the air sturdily, plump bodies seeming far more capable of sustaining long-distance flight, we find it easy to accept that they’ve come hundreds, maybe a thousand miles or more.  They look built for it.  Some pennyweight hummingbirds travel as far as Canadian geese.  While in some ways hummingbirds appear barely there, once you know something about their migratory habits, it’s clear that those little bodies pack a lot of fire.

Another prodigy of creation, the human hand, while bearing in its bone articulation of arm, wrist, palm, and fingers some resemblance to the skeletal structure of birds’ wings, works on mechanics closer to those of birds’ feet in that a human hand can exert a grip and a bird’s wing can’t—unless you count how their wingtips appear to handle the air and wind currents as they fly.  But birds’ feet can and do grip (hence the perch reflex).  Human hands have a far less powerful grip strength than that of an eagle’s foot and talons. Still, studies of and medical or professional standards for the average grip strength of men show it to run around 106 pounds of pressure, with women’s average grip strength measuring around 70 pounds.

NASA’s requirements for grip strength of U.S. Air Force personnel, including air crewman, is quite a bit higher than what’s thought average for the population at large. NASA’s standards relegate to the 5th percentile that 106 pound average grip strength for the general male population.  A right-handed grip strength of 134 pounds is the mean for Air Force male personnel, and a really powerful grip in the 95th percentile runs around 164 pounds—a crusher.   Left-handed grip strength for men is 96 pounds in the 5th percentile, 124 on average and 154 in the 95th percentile.

For women Air Force personnel, grip strength in both hands averaging 58 pounds is ranked weak, with 73 pounds being the mean or 50th percentile.  87 pounds of grip strength is 95th percentile for women.

For a woman, I have large hands.  My open hand’s span from thumb tip to the end of my little finger measures 9 ¼ inches.  The length of my hand, from the bottom of my palm to the tip of my third finger, is 7 ½ inches.  Despite my being middle-aged, my grip strength is probably somewhat above the women’s average of 70 pounds of pressure that some studies and standards report to be average for the general population, especially in my right hand—the hand I use to feed my disabled daughter.  For years, that right hand, via pinch grip, has squeezed rigid plastic cups to squirt into my daughter’s mouth the liquid diet we feed her.  Years and years and years of three times a day pinch-grip exercise—my strength in that hand might have a bit of a crush to it.  And since I’m right-handed, that hand would probably be the one I’d use to try and tackle a hummingbird.

But consider a hummingbird’s 0.12 ounces weight and 3 ¾ inches length in a human hand as large as mine with a grip or crush strength of 70 pounds or higher, and perhaps the danger to the bird comes clear.  If out of excitement I close my hand too quickly or too hard around that featherweight body or simply overestimate how tightly to restrain the bird, my hand will do it terrible harm.  Furthermore, in order for a bird to breathe, its sternum (breastbone) must have freedom of movement to rise up and down.  Given human hand strength, suffocating or injuring a hummingbird by hand will be only slightly more difficult than harming a large sphinx moth, some species of which display flight behaviors similar to hummingbirds and run near to the same size.  And an injured or badly frightened bird is at risk of dying of shock—just like we are.  The bird in my skylight already and obviously showed signs of being quite stressed.

When the trapped hummingbird perched on the net’s rim long enough that I could catch it, I happened to grab it with my weaker left hand, very quickly, very lightly. Later, I realized that my left-handed catch possibly reduced, maybe only by slightly, chances of injuring the hummer’s delicate wings, organs, or skeleton.  Right away, I stepped off the chair and headed for the back door and out onto the deck.  The deck is roofed, so I went to the edge where there was clear view of the early evening sky.  I opened my hand flat and within half a second the bird righted and flew nearly straight up into the sky to reorient itself.   When it swooped down, it became engaged right away in another chase as one of the males spotted it and came to teach it its place. I hoped that the trapped bird’s being swept up in a familiar social ritual so quickly after its frightening ordeal in the house might have helped it feel safely back in a natural situation.

Here are a few tips for freeing trapped hummingbirds.

1. Don’t use a net to catch a trapped hummingbird.  Nets have enough play that a struggling bird may do itself injury.  Or if the bird becomes too badly tangled, you might injure it as you try to disentangle it.

2. If a hummingbird becomes trapped in your house in broad daylight, lower the blinds over the windows and open all doors to the outside so that the bird can see and read currents of light that start running through the house the moment you open the doors.  Hummingbirds are smart about light—their migratory behavior is intertwined with the sun’s movement.  Most will figure out that a skylight, despite how it appears to frame open sky, is a false lead.  They’ll look for other possibilities and try following the light currents flowing through open doorways, freeing themselves from your house without your having to touch them.  That would be the best way to help a trapped bird.

3. If a hummingbird becomes trapped in your house in the evening, it’s harder to get it to fly out on its own because open doors might not admit enough light for a frightened bird to discern light currents that it can follow.  Then you might need to catch it with your hand.

4. If you must catch a bird by hand, use a very light, loose grip—just tight enough to prevent the bird’s struggling while you get it outside.  Try to hold it most securely on its sides and think to provide enough space in your grip for the bird’s sternum to move up and down so that it can breathe. Otherwise, you run the risk of crushing or suffocating the bird.

5. Try to avoid lingering over the feeling–if you get it–of having such a vulnerable and wild creature in your hand.  Try to avoid taking time to wonder over the beauty of the bird.  Hurry and release it as soon as you are able to get it to a location where it can see the lit sky and fly safely.

6. Though it’s hard to resist, try not to get too curious.  Refrain, if you can, from examining the bird. Especially don’t hold it near your face to look at it.  Hummingbirds are very aware of faces—humans’, other animals’, and other birds’.  Eye contact affects them strongly.  Also, animals that spend much time around humans have made the connection between our hands and our mouths.  They know that many things that our hands grab go into our mouths, and since they feed by mouth themselves, they’ve got some idea of how that food-to-mouth function works.  Some of our hummingbird neighbors buzz around our hands as we pour nectar into the cups, drinking as we pour.  Probably, those birds are at least vaguely aware of the connection between our hands and their mouths.  In spite of their seeming frenetic, attention-deficit-like behavior, hummingbirds pay very close attention to you when you’re around—including to the movements of your hands—so I think there’s more reason to suppose that a hummingbird enclosed in your hand feels fear than there is to assume that it doesn’t.  When you examine or admire it or sentimentalize over its appearance or condition you prolong its elevated heartbeat and other harmful effects of fear.  For a hummingbird, the human hand can prove a more threatening trap than can a skylight.

7. Don’t expect a released hummingbird to thank you for saving it, though it almost certainly has learned something momentous from the experience it’s had with you. If you’re at least as smart as a hummingbird, you’ve probably learned something, too.  That provides meaning enough for the encounter.

For many of us, there are ways in which releasing a grip and freeing a bird is a more psychologically and spiritually vital choice than is the act of closing a hand around a bird to restrain and rescue it. If you wind up having to hand-rescue a hummer, try to be attentive to how rapidly your brain and hand transmit information back and forth while you have the bird in hand.  Sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you rarely have or perhaps never have had before may shoot head-to-heart-to-hand like lightning bolts.  They could prove seductive and get a hold on you. The trick is to avoid making the rescue about what you feel from handling the bird.  What’s best for the hummer—releasing it as soon as possible and not indulging in the rush of having it in hand—could also prove liberating for you, especially should you become caught in the grip of your power over the bird. Opening the hand and freeing it helps you to see the bird, hummingbird culture generally, and life’s broad spectrum as something you’re a contributing part of instead of experiencing the capture as an interlude of intimacy over which you hold control.

The mechanics of the hand and its genius for grasping have developed tendons and ligaments at every tier of human life, including in how we think. How many commonly used words carrying the meaning of “understand,” like “comprehend” (com, “with” or “jointly” + prehendere, “to grasp”) are etymologically anchored in the concept of grasping or holding on?  (Hint: Lots.) Consciously springing that gripping mechanism can help us opposing-thumbs folk wing free of those pesky skylights in the mind.

Hummingbirds and clothespins

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Photos by Saul Karamesines

2 Responses to How to free a hummingbird from a skylight

  1. susan

    I just had a hummingbird inside my home trapped in a 14 foot skylight that ran the width of a room. After reading how hummingbirds followed light (and watching an example of it). I climbed on the roof and put heavy duvets and blankets over the skylight, and as I laid down the duvets I could see the hummingbird follow the light source on the remaining uncovered skylight. After the last blanket/duvet went down— no more hummingbird—it flew to the light source with the open door. bingo!

  2. Patricia

    Hi Susan,

    Thank you for commenting. Yes, that’s true of hummingbirds–they’re very light literate. I’ve watched several find their own ways out of our cave of a house by following those light currents that run through the rooms. Also, I’ve noticed that when I release hand-captured birds, they fly straight up toward the sun for a moment. That action seems to re-orient them. Their compasses now re-set, they usually settle in a tree nearby to finish recovering from the shock.

    I like that you climbed up onto your roof and covered the skylight. I wish I had the agility to do that!

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