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The hummingbird is one of the world's most fascinating living creatures to watch. But don't blink or you might miss it. One way to get a good look is to attract hummingbirds to your yard.
At least 53 species of North American birds drink nectar — the naturally occurring sweet liquid produced by plants. Hummingbirds and orioles are the main nectar drinkers. Mockingbirds, grosbeaks, tanagers and several warblers also enjoy sweet drinks from flowers and tree sap. Nectar tempts birds to poke their beaks into flowers where they inadvertently pick up pollen and carry it to neighboring flowers. This cross-pollination keeps plants vital by preventing inbreeding. Nectar drinkers also benefit from eating protein-rich insects and drinking the high-calorie nectar.
Hummingbirds are the tiniest of vertebrates, but they're giants when it comes to avian accomplishment. Hummingbirds have the largest brain and greatest appetite of all birds their size. They also have the fastest wing beat, quickest heartbeat and highest body temperatures. Some hummingbirds and other nectar eaters migrate thousands of miles each year. To accomplish these remarkable feats, they rely on the abundant supply of nectar usually found within specially designed flowers that have co-evolved with hummingbirds for thousands of years.
Like other migrants, nectar-drinking birds are vulnerable to extreme weather, disease and predators. They also suffer from habitat loss, pesticides and collisions with windows and cell towers. Backyard gardens, large and small, can provide sanctuary for resident and migrating nectar-eating birds. Sugar water feeders provide nourishment, but they're most helpful as a supplement to the natural nectar obtained from flowers. It's best to create gardens that provide real flower nectar as part of a complete habitat that offers shelter, nesting places and water.
Since hummingbirds and orioles naturally frequent openings in the forest and forest edges, they're readily drawn to suburban and rural gardens that offer a mix of tall trees, shrubs, meadow and lawn. During migration, they frequent parks and urban yards planted with bright flowers.
Indicate the location of your home and outbuildings. Include trees, shrubs, flower beds and other features that may benefit hummingbirds and orioles. Use your landscape sketch to determine the best location for your nectar gardens. A site close to a window or patio door will provide you with the best views. Hummingbird gardens need not be large — even a window box or hanging planter will do.
Grow a cascade of nectar-rich plants by securing a trellis to your house, then plant trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) beneath it. Trees and garden sheds can also support sturdy trellises for trumpet vine (Campsis radicans). Layer herbaceous or lower-growing plants (see plant selections below) in front of vines. Then, add window boxes, tubs or ceramic pots to create a terraced effect and provide growing places for a variety of nectar plants, like hamelia patens, cigar plant (Cuphea spp.) and justicias.
Like most birds, hummingbirds frequently bathe in shallow water and may preen or flit through the droplets generated by garden misters, drip systems and small pump-fed waterfalls. Orioles also prefer shallow water — no more than 2 inches deep.
Hummingbirds and orioles use trees for perching and nesting. Large tree trunks may also provide a source of lichens, which many hummingbirds attach to the outsides of their nests with spider silk for camouflage. Hummingbirds usually nest in the forks of small, stiff tree branches; orioles favor the drooping branches of maples, poplars, willow and conifers. If your garden doesn't include trees or shrubs, a dead branch with small perching twigs makes a good substitute. Locate these perches near your garden or sugar water feeders.
This will help you select plants that bloom when hummingbirds are most likely to visit and determine when to put out hummingbird feeders. Don’t worry that leaving feeders up too long will prevent hummingbirds from migrating on time. Migration is triggered mainly by day length rather than food availability. In regions where winter freezes are rare, some hummingbirds and orioles may stay through winter.
Learn which native plants hummingbirds feed on in nearby natural areas, and include these in your garden. Native plants and nectar-eating birds have a long association; these plants will serve as reliable sources of nectar.
Tubular flowers contain nectar at the bottom, which encourages these long-beaked birds to probe for their sweet meal. In general, flowers that rely on fragrance to attract insect pollinators aren't good nectar sources, as most birds have a poor sense of smell.
Hummingbirds usually line their nest with soft plant fibers, so plant cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), which has fuzzy stems, and pussy willow (Salix discolor), which has fuzzy flowers. If your yard contains thistle (Cirsium spp.) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), allow some to remain — their fluffy seeds provide nesting material.
This provides nectar throughout the growing season. This is especially important in early spring when migrants first return, exhausted from their long travels.
This will provide larger quantities of nectar. Also, prune the tips of flowering plants to encourage more flowers.
Birds can ingest poisons when they eat contaminated insects, and systemic herbicides can make their way into flower nectar. Let birds be your natural insect control.
Nectar-feeding birds may appear moments after you set out flowers and feeders, or it may take weeks before they chance upon your garden. Once hummingbirds start visiting your garden, some will likely stay throughout the season and return the following year.
This will help attract the birds until your garden flowers are flourishing and lure birds up close for better viewing. To prepare a sugar water solution, mix 1 part white sugar with 4 parts water. Bring the mixture to a boil to sterilize and dissolve all of the sugar. Store the unused quantity in a refrigerator. Clean feeders every two or three days under hot, running tap water, scrubbing them with a bottlebrush to eliminate deadly fungus. Avoid red food coloring; it's unnecessary. To help attract hummingbirds to new feeders, tie a cluster of red plastic flowers over the feeder entrance. Lure orioles and tanagers up close by offering halved oranges on spikes or grape jelly in special feeders or small bowls.
These tiny birds' high metabolism requires them to feed continuously, consuming about 50% of their body weight per day. A complete diet includes insects as well as nectar, another good reason for plantings.
Garden plants can provide both insects and nectar, but to really get the maximum birdwatching experience, most hummingbird watchers like to hang feeders.
Hummingbirds are susceptible to bacteria. Clean the feeder every three to four days when the weather is hot. Try using a vinegar / water solution (about 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water) rather than soap.
Insects (mostly bees and ants) can become pests at the feeder. Feeders and feeder accessories are available to reduce or eliminate insect pests. Hummingbirds are pesticide sensitive, so don't use chemicals near the feeder.
Choose plants that bloom at different times to supply nectar all season. Bloom times vary by planting zone. As an added advantage, many of the plants listed attract butterflies too.