Despite bouts of unseasonably cold weather and the never-ending cold rain, my favorite feisty birds, hummingbirds, have returned to my yard. Right now, my garden is in an in-between time – early bloomers are finishing up and summer ones haven’t started – so the birds are hungrily hovering at the feeders. Soon, they will expect more substance to their diet; they will want to feast on a buffet of flowers.
Over the years I have figured out that good hummingbird design and the right flower choices are equally important in keeping urban hummers happy. Since city hummers have to cope with severely reduced natural habitat, they rely on us to provide appropriate pockets of nature that meet their needs.
Hummingbirds use up a lot of energy as they search for food. A longer, more narrow garden keeps food sources close together, eliminating the need for extra flights from bed to bed. It also gives enough room for several birds to feed without feeling the need to defend their territory. Adding a curve to the bed is not only visually pleasing, it also gives the birds a better view of their surroundings, allowing them to watch for both competitors and predators.
Access to both sun and shade is another important factor in your hummingbird garden design. Many of the nectar producing flowers hummingbirds crave grow best in full sun, but having a safe, shaded resting spot nearby lets the birds rebuild their energy before striking out on another feeding frenzy in the sunny portion of the garden. Although hummers will appreciate and use a specially designed hummingbird swing as a resting place, tree branches work just as well!
Just like other bird species, hummers enjoy taking baths. Unlike other species however, hummingbirds don’t usually immerse themselves in water. Instead, they prefer dashing under and through sprays of water. They will even shower by flitting through droplets of water falling off of large leaves after a rainshower. Installing a mister or a spray jet in a shallow bowl is a sure way to satisfy hummingbird bathers.
Image by Cassie Lee
Incorporating feeders into the garden plan is essential. Even with an ample supply of blooms, the seemingly insatiable hummers will flock to feeders. Having at least two feeders at opposite ends of the garden, and a third in the middle, helps to draw larger hummingbird crowds. A single feeder encourages the most dominant male to claim the territory as his own, chasing all others away. More options means more birds.
If possible, hang the feeders in a shaded location. It will help keep them cleaner by slowing the growth of the mold and fungus produced from the sugar. Mold produces a deadly bacteria and fungus can cause a hummer’s tongue to swell, making it impossible for the bird to eat. Either vigorously scrub the feeders every few days, or soak them in a solution of vinegar water, rinse them thoroughly and then dry them before refilling with fresh nectar. If you make your own nectar, 4 cups of water to 1 cup of sugar is a good ratio. Gently warm until all the sugar dissolves, then cool completely before adding to your feeders. It isn’t necessary to add red food coloring. While the research is inconclusive, many researchers believe that adding red food coloring to homemade nectar can have harmful effects for the birds.
Although spiders are a favorite food source, spider webs are important too. They are a favorite nest building tool for hummingbirds. The hummers pluck the threads from the webs to use in weaving their teacup sized nests. The fine thread of a spider web is soft, pliable and durable, making it an ideal material to gently cradle the two jelly bean-sized eggs that females lay. As the eggs hatch and the babies develop, the web thread stretches without breaking, letting the nest expand just enough to accommodate the growing family. Leaving a few spider webs in and around the hummingbird garden encourages the birds to breed and raise their young nearby, plus the spiders make a nice meal.
Avoid the use of chemicals in and around your hummingbird garden. Although we think of hummingbirds as nectar feeders, they also consume thousands of insects over the course of the season. Chemicals can be taken up into the systems of insects, and then can be ingested by the hummers. Even days or weeks later, absorbed pesticides have been shown to alter the ability of birds to reproduce healthy young. In some cases, absorbed pesticides have been shown to kill the birds.
Adding the right mix of plants is the final step in developing the perfect habitat for hummers. Join us next time as we delve into some of the best flowers to keep your garden humming!