Peter Stangel, Ph.D.
Although most birders think "feeders first” when it comes to hummingbirds, a healthy habitat will increase the number and — depending on where you live — diversity of hummingbirds attracted to your place. Even more exciting, you can create hummingbird habitat "instantaneously.”
Because hummers seek the flowers of annual and perennial plants, shrubs and vines, these fast-growing plants will provide a food source right away — no waiting for years for trees or other types of habitat to mature.
Nectar is a top priority for any hummingbird habitat, so focus on blossoming plants. Many plant nurseries advertise plants that hummers find appealing. If you are uncertain about what to plant, ask your nursery specialist, local native-plant society, nearby wild-bird retail store or bird club. Local experts can help you find the plants best suited for your area.
Plants with red or orange blossoms stand out as hummingbird favorites. The Operation RubyThroat website list of Top 10 hummingbird plants for the East is dominated by red, pink and orange flowers.
One reason that hummers are so popular is the minimal space needed to attract them. A potted plant on a balcony might draw in birds. If you have space, plan for a variety of flowers that will blossom throughout the year.
Vines, such as honeysuckles and trumpet creeper, are favored by hummers. Some varieties grow well in containers; add a trellis to your vine’s pot when planting. We have a big fence around our yard to contain our dogs, and the fence provides a perfect support for vines.
Choose native plants whenever possible; they often require less water and are more disease- and insect-resistant than exotic species. Also keep your intended guests in mind; when choosing landscape plants, choose those that create nectar.
Hummingbirds also eat tiny insects attracted to nectar. Watch the hummers in your garden closely, and with the aid of a binocular, you might see them picking off small bugs from flowers as they feed. Considering that behavior, avoid using pesticides on or near plants frequented by hummers.
Hummingbirds, like all birds, need water. Misters that spray water from the garden hose into the air and bushes will attract hummingbirds. They sometimes perch on the branch and let the water douse them, but they also fly through the mist. The local wild-bird supply store might offer other hummer-friendly water features, too.
Hummingbirds, like this Allen's Hummingbird are attracted to red, orange and pink colors.
When picking feeders for your balcony or yard, think first about location. Will your feeder hang from a tree branch, a pole projecting from your deck or a post in the middle of your garden?
Next, think about cleaning. Sugar water offers a great medium for fungal growth, and you’ll want to clean your feeder often — maybe every couple days. If it’s not easy to clean, you’ll become unhappy. Then, think about fun! Choose a feeder that suits your personality.
Many enthusiasts prefer to make their hummingbird food, using a 4:1 ratio of water to granulated sugar (no honey or sugar substitutes). Boil the water, mix in the sugar, let it cool, and fill the feeder. I often make more than I need, put the remainder in the refrigerator and have it ready when the feeders need refilling.
Most hummingbird species that appear in our yards are doing well from the conservation standpoint, but they still need our attention. Many species that nest in the United States and Canada spend winter in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Their migration journeys include hazards, and the limited size of their wintering grounds means habitat is at a premium.
If you have a favorite hummingbird species, do some research about its winter range and any conservation challenges in that area. Operation RubyThroat and The Hummingbird Society focus on hummer conservation, and American Bird Conservancy also takes a leadership role in habitat conservation efforts, as do many land trusts.
Closer to home, cats and hummingbirds don’t mix; please keep your cats indoors. The pets will be healthier in the long run.
Although hummingbird collisions with windows are uncommon, it’s worth a walk around the house to see if any windows reflect outdoor scenes that could fool a hummer or other type of bird. Reducing the reflection will decrease the possibility of collisions.
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