Hummingbirds are the exquisite jewels of the garden, and they are also major pollinators and insect predators. As the bird probes the long, tubular flowers with its long, thin bill, pollen is deposited on the bird’s head and then transferred to the next bloom. The tubular flowers hold their nectar deep enough to deny less efficient pollinators, such as insects and butterflies, access to the nectar, but at a depth ideally suited to the hummingbird’s bill that has evolved with the flower shape.
Because of their constant movement, with wings beating at up to 90 beats per second, the hummingbird needs to feed constantly, consuming up to one third to one half its body weight daily. In a study of Anna’s hummingbird, it was estimated that each bird consumed nectar from 1,000 blossoms daily as well as numerous small insects for protein. In a garden designed for hummingbirds, you should provide a continuous display of hummingbird flowers—tubular flowers of red, orange, or pink colors—from early spring to fall in the east and year-round in California and the Southwest.
If you plant the selected plants in massed clumps, in containers on your balcony or courtyard, or grouped in your garden, you will provide an attractive patch of color for you and the birds to enjoy. If you don’t have a lot of space, you can use a balcony planter or a fence or trellis to plant a trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans). The brilliant flame-colored flowers of this vine have the highest volume of nectar per blossom of all the hummingbird flowers. When it is planted with the early flowering crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), you will have a powerful magnet for attracting hummingbirds from early spring throughout summer. Trim the vines back each fall to keep the flowers at viewing level.
Generally, arrange hummingbird plants from the lowest at the front, and grade the plants up to the taller species, so the hummingbirds can easily access the flowers and you can easily observe the birds. Hummingbirds prefer the same species of plants planted in clumps, rather than scattered throughout the garden. An island of hummingbird flowers surrounded by lawn is also an attractive arrangement for hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds enjoy water, especially from misters and dripping devices. They prefer to bathe by flying through a fine mist of water, rather than in a birdbath. Position the mist source near the flowerbed. Even an upward-pointing garden hose of mist spray will attract hummingbirds on a hot day and give them refreshing relief. You can purchase misting and dripping devices commercially to attach to birdbaths. If you are planning to install a garden pond, consider installing a spray feature that will be appealing to hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds often nest in suburban gardens, in tall trees like oak (Quercus spp.), alder (Alnus spp.), maple (Acer spp.), and hemlock (Tsuga spp.). The female builds a tiny, cup-shaped nest from collected plant down and lichen, which she binds with spider webs and fastens to a horizontal limb. She uses nesting material including the fuzz from young fronds of cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamonea), American pussy willow catkins (Salix discolor), thistles (Cirsium spp.), and dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), and the cottonlike flower remnants (seeds) of bulrush or cattail (Typha spp.).
When active, hummingbirds need to feed almost continuously. When they roost at night, to conserve energy they go into torpor, a form of hibernation or deep sleep. In this state, their metabolism is lowered by 85 percent and their heart rate is markedly reduced, minimizing their energy needs. Hummingbirds roost anywhere they are warm and safe from predators.
Important: For the well-being of hummingbirds, avoid using pesticides and other harsh chemicals in your garden, because hummingbirds feed on large quantities of insects.
Hummingbirds will come to your garden if you provide a sequence of flowering plants attractive to them. In the Southwest, you can have hummingbirds year-round without the responsibility, constant maintenance, and the risk of harm associated with hummingbird feeders.
Putting out a hummingbird feeder places a large responsibility on the gardener. Cleanliness is essential to ensure that it is safe for the birds to use. The solution needs to be changed every second day and more frequently when the weather is hot, even when it has not been used. This will prevent the solution from fermenting or going moldy.
At least once a week, the feeder needs to be disassembled and thoroughly washed using a bottle brush to reach all parts of the feeder. Soap or detergent should not be used according to most experts since it can be harmful to hummingbirds. Wash the feeder in warm water with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to help remove any mold and bacteria. Rinse the feeder thoroughly to remove any residue. Clean the feeder until you would drink from it yourself.
Care must be taken when mixing up the feeding solution. Never use honey as it can cause a fatal fungal infection on the bird’s tongue. Sugar mixtures should not exceed 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. The sugar mixture should be boiled (not using a microwave, as this will deplete the nutrient value of the sugar).
Hummingbird feeders also attract bees, wasps, and ants, so purchase one with a bee guard attached and use a coating of vasoline on the feeder support to deter ants.
The healthiest and most attractive way to attract hummingbirds is to plant your garden or balcony containers with flowers that hummingbirds love. Then you know your birds will be well fed and healthy, even when you are on vacation.
George Adams is an avid birdwatcher, a landscape designer, a wildlife artist, and a photographer. Please say hello to George on his Facebook Page.
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“If you own only one book about attracting birds — Gardening for the Birds has all the useful information you will need to create your own bird sanctuary in your own garden.” —Noelle Johnson, Birds & Blooms Blog