The Humble (?) Hummingbird

A simple pleasure that delights the eyes and ears of gardeners everywhere is the arrival of the hummingbird in the spring. In central Illinois, it is usually the ruby-throated hummingbird that makes its presence known. These tiny birds seem like they have an endless supply of natural energy and pep. They do, however, (like us) depend upon food to provide them with the energy that is necessary for life. This food can be in the form of sugar nectar in man-made feeders or natural nectar found in flowers.

The amount of time hummingbirds spend in your home garden is directly related to the amount and type of food that can be found there. Hummingbirds depend upon nectar to fuel their bodies. Many species do supplement the sugary liquid with bits of protein found in insects and spiders, but flowers are an important food source for these little birds. And certain types of flowers are more attractive to hummingbirds than others. Hummingbirds’ favorite flower colors are red and purple. Other colors will suffice at times, but it will take longer to catch the attention of the hummingbirds.

Plant form is also important to hummingbirds as well as other nectar feeders such as butterflies. Hummingbirds and many butterflies look for flowers that can accommodate their size, shape and beaks or mouth parts. Both also look for flowers with long tubes leading to the nectar. Since hummingbirds hover as they feed, they also favor flowers that feature a spike that extends well above the foliage.

In most species, it is the female alone who builds the nest and raises the young. Male hummingbirds mate with any female that will have them and they leave the nesting and parenting duties entirely to the female. Both male and females of some hummingbird species are likely to claim a feeder, a nectar-rich garden or even a particular plant as their own. They will, in fact, viciously pursue any hummingbird intruder that comes near as well as dive-bombing trespassing butterflies or songbirds.

Have you ever noticed a decline in the amount of hummingbirds at your feeder during the summer months? As spring turns to summer, hummingbirds are still around but they are busy with family life and have less time to hang around the feeder. They are also adding more sources of protein (i.e. insects like spiders) to their diets. Nesting hummingbirds seek food close to their nest sites. They may desert a garden that holds few high-nectar flowers in favor of one elsewhere that’s filled with their favorites. This may happen even if there is a sugar-nectar feeder available!

To increase your chances of seeing hummingbirds even during the slow summer season, be sure to plant some of these favorites.
* Columbines * Penstemons * Anise Hyssop
* Delphiniums * Scarlet Sage * Cardinal Flower
* Cypress Vine * Pineapple Sage * Mexican Bush Sage
* Flame Azalea * Blue Anise Sage/Salvia * Scarlet Celosia

Hummingbird watching is definitely a hobby worth exploring. With a small investment in a feeder, sugar water and a small garden of nectar-rich flowers, these little creatures will provide hours of enjoyment. It is a hobby available to everyone, no matter where they call home.

(Data reference:  Yankee Magazine’s ‘Projects for the Birder’s Garden’).


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