If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being “buzzed” by a hummingbird or two, or have witnessed their mesmerizing hovering techniques, you are not alone in wanting to make it desirable for them to stay around all season. How can a creature that weighs about as much as a penny capture us so? I think the more we hear about their abilities and habits, we are more amazed!
The shining iridescent colors and the unmistakable whir of wings are starters. Did you know that the size of the hummingbird nest is about that of a walnut, and difficult to spot due to camouflaging with earthy lichens and mosses on the outside. They seek out hard-to-find understory tree and bush branches. Their modest home holds eggs that are about the size of a pea. Overwhelmingly, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the shining star in our area. It may seem like you are seeing different species — each time the little creature turns, it may appear black, green, whitish or somewhere in between. The males have the red feathers of great distinction, while the females have similar backs but are white and green where that beautiful red is around the throat area of the male.
These diminutive birds migrate all the way from southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, working their way through the Gulf of Mexico and all the way up the eastern U.S. to southern Canada. Those little wings beat between 50 to 70 times per second, getting the males up here first around the beginning of May. The females are close behind, arriving to find males fighting for their attention. She sits in a low bush, watching males joust, dance in midair and perform plunging aerial acrobatics. After mating, the male may not assist in nest building or rearing of the young, perhaps moving along to pursue other females. The male will leave first in September, leaving the females to follow behind with the season’s young in tow. With such an exhausting outlay of energy, these birds have to rest and they can even do that in an unusual way. They can go into a state of torpor, lowering body temperature and breathing rate, even appearing to be cold and dead.
The stunning speed and agility of the hummingbird helps keep it out of reach from large predators, but sometimes they are tripped up by much smaller critters. They can be caught in a spider’s web, can be overwhelmed by a large dragonfly or even snatched out of a low flight by a frog or a praying mantis!
So how can we be good hosts? They will go where they can get the food, water and shelter that most attracts them. That is getting to be increasingly difficult in this time of natural degradation and lack of habitat connectivity. Our best effort is to understand their needs and to provide the basics, plus maybe some addition deal “sweeteners”! These birds eagerly come to feeders that are filled with a sugar water solution, typically one part sugar to four parts water, mixed and boiled for full purity. This mixture must typically be changed every two to three days depending on temperature, lest it get moldy and actually harm the hummingbirds that you want to attract and nurture.
We also know that they are attracted to colorful plants, particularly red ones. So, most feeders are made or colored red and it is a good idea to plant some red, nectaring perennial plants with some colorful annuals as well. They have long and extendable tubular tongues which can reach far into a flower for nectar and also to suck up insects for needed protein. Plants that can be most helpful in this way are native perennials, red columbine, bee balm, trumpet vine, cardinal flower, jewelweed, blue sage, coral honeysuckle, foxglove beardtongue, butterfly weed, phlox, New Jersey tea, highbush blueberry and many more. You might also add some attractant color of non-native perennials like sedum spectabalis and non-native annuals like Mexican sunflower, old fashioned zinnias and scarlet sage.
One tip is to recognize that hummingbirds are very interested in hydration and bathing in water every day, so make sure that you at least have a clean birdbath. It is a spectacular sight to see a misting spray, sprinkler or bubbler being flown through or hovered in by the birds getting their desired cleaning and fluid intake. So, make your yard native and chemical free, provide nesting bushes and trees, and add colorful touches in general. Purchase a ready made feeding station at any hardware store or garden center, or make and maintain your own. With patience and persistence, you will be on your way to “wooing” hummingbirds to visit and multiply!