Every spring, birdwatchers across the country welcome the return of hummingbirds as they migrate north. These tiny, beautiful birds are a delight to watch as they hover and dart throughout the garden, and the males put on quite a show as they protect their territory and attract mates. And while hummingbird feeders do provide nourishment to the energetic birds, let's face it – an active feeder is a source of pure pleasure for gardeners and bird-lovers alike.
Of the over 300 species of hummingbirds, about 16 species breed in the United States. The ruby-throated hummingbird is by far the most common east of the Mississippi, but be on the lookout for other types as well. Hummingbirds undertake a grueling migration every year, wintering in the Southern U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America, then returning in the spring to breed throughout North America.
Hummingbird migration is a product of instinct and nature. Most researchers agree that feeding hummingbirds will not alter these migration patterns, and many gardeners like to extend the feeding season to support migrating birds.
Hummingbirds eat from 5 to 14 meals an hour. Their diet consists of flower nectar (which is largely sucrose, or sugar water) and protein, in the form of spiders, soft-bodied insects, and larvae. They can consume up to 50% of their body weight in nectar each day.
The typical hummingbird nest is about the size of half a walnut shell. The nest is constructed largely of spider silk and plant down, and the outside is covered with lichens, moss, or other camouflaging plant material.
Look for hummingbird nests in trees and shrubs that provide shelter from weather and predators such as azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, wax myrtle, hollies, oaks (especially live oaks), pines, red maple, and sycamore. They may be near the tips of branches, with overhead leaf protection but space for cooling summer breezes. Although less common, look for nests on porches and other sheltered spots as well.
Choosing a Hummingbird Feeder
There are many different types of hummingbird feeders on the market, and some are quite beautiful. Most come in bright colors to mimic large, nectar-rich flowers. The key to feeding hummingbirds is safety – nectar spoils easily, and bacteria can be dangerous for the birds. Choose a feeder that is easy to refill and clean, or two identical ones with dishwasher-safe parts, so that you can rotate them.
The best type of nectar is a simple sucrose (table sugar) solution. More expensive nectar mixes are unnecessary, as the birds obtain the added nutrients from eating insects, and the red color is not needed due to brightly-colored feeders.
To most closely mimic flower nectar, use a 1:4 ratio – one part white cane sugar to four parts water. Some gardeners use a rich 1:1 solution in the early spring, to fuel migrating and nesting birds and to encourage the bird to stay at that feeder. After 2-3 weeks, switch to the 1:4 solution to encourage more feeding activity. Never use honey or brown sugar, since they spoil very quickly and can harbor dangerous bacteria.
To discourage spoilage and mold growth, boil the sugar solution for several minutes, and allow it to cool to room temperature before using. Store any excess in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to five days. Immediately discard any solution that looks cloudy or has black mold.
Using Your Feeder
Feeders MUST be clean and sanitized to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Clean your feeder using mild dish soap, or boiling water, or a mild bleach solution. Whatever the cleaning method, rinse the feeder extremely well. The nectar solution will only last 3-5 days outdoors, and less in hot summer weather. Once you get an idea of how much the birds are eating, only fill your feeder with enough nectar to last 2-3 days, and empty it sooner if it looks cloudy.
Hang the feeder near flowering plants or next to trees where the birds may build their nests. Once a bird has found your feeder, it will return for frequent visits and become quite bold, so get your camera ready!
Planting a Hummingbird Garden
When planning a hummingbird garden, consider including the following elements:
- Water for bathing and drinking, such as a birdbath or fountain.
- Space between flowering plants to give the birds room to hover.
- An organic garden free of pesticides which can be toxic to hummingbirds.
- Leafy shrubs for cover and nesting.
- Flowering plants for feeding.
- Lots of bright colors, particularly red.
- Mosses for nesting materials
Some flowering plants to consider include:
- Bee balm – Monarda didyma
- Canna - Canna sp.
- Cardinal flower - Lobelia cardinalis
- Columbine - Aquilegia sp.
- Coral bells - Heuchera sanguinea
- Delphinium - Delphinium elatum
- Flame acanthus - Acanthus mollis
- Four o'clock - Mirabilis jalapa
- Foxglove - Digitalis purpurea
- Fuschia - Fuschia hybrida
- Hibiscus – Hibiscus sp.
- Hollyhock - Althea rosea
- Honeysuckle - Lonicera sp.
- Lantana - Lantana sp.
- Lupine - Lupinus hybrids
- Penstemon - Penstemon sp.
- Petunia - Petunia hybrida
- Trumpet creeper - Campsis radicans
- Trumpet vine - Bignonia tagliabuana
Also consider planting shrubs and trees such as:
- Azalea - Rhododendron sp.
- Bottlebrush - Callistemon lanceolatus
- Butterfly bush - Buddleia davidii
- Eucalyptus - Eucalyptus sp.
- Flowering quince - Chaenomeles sp.
- Mimosa - Albizia julibrissin
- Weigela - Weigela rosea
For more info on hummingbirds, check out websites like hummingbirds.net and worldofhummingbirds.com for migration maps and information about specific species. Many websites welcome photographs and submissions of hummingbird sightings for migration mapping and research.