Plant a flowering feast
If you have a flower garden, you already have some of what these little birds need. Hummingbirds depend on the quick energy provided by flower nectar to fuel their turbo-charged lifestyles. They look first for red, orange, and bright pink colors, but also take to blues, purples, yellows, and whites.
Red, especially, acts like a beacon to hummingbirds. A mass of red blooms in beds, baskets, or containers draws hummingbirds out of the sky. And once they’re hovering in your garden, they’ll probe every flower, from the flat faces of impatiens (Impatiens spp.) to the deep tunnels of the trumpet creeper vine (Campsis radicans).
To encourage hummingbirds to return to your garden, provide a succession of blooms from spring through fall. Plant hanging baskets and early-flowering perennials in the spring, followed by bright annuals and blooming perennials in the summer. In the fall, help hummingbirds build up a fat layer for migration with heavy nectar producers like orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) and trumpet creeper vine.
If you’re new to hummingbird gardening, don’t try to do everything at once. Start with three or four flowering plants and add a few more each year. Hummingbirds look for clumps of color, since this tells them many nectar meals are available. You don’t need to set aside a great deal of garden space to attract hummingbirds. Several masses of color, such as a grouping of bright annuals or a long-blooming shrub, will attract them.
Choose natives to your region, since hummingbirds recognize them quickly. In addition, these plants are adapted to local conditions, and they host the insects hummingbirds are familiar with.
Use feeders as a supplement
Once you’ve planted a bright, blooming flower garden to attract the little birds, use nectar feeders as a supplemental food source. Feeders lure hummingbirds toward decks and patios, where you can see them better. And nectar feeders filled with sugar water can be lifesavers for early-spring and late-fall hummingbirds. (Disregard that old myth that says feeders left out in the fall prevent birds from migrating.)
Choose an easy-to-clean feeder with a clear plastic bowl or bottle that shows the nectar level. Take the feeder apart at the store to make sure you’ll be able to disassemble it at home for cleaning every few days, since cleanliness is the most important factor in hummingbird feeding. Buy a feeder without yellow parts, since yellow attracts bees and wasps.
It’s easy and inexpensive to mix your own hummingbird nectar at home. Just add 4 cups boiling water to 1 cup table sugar. (Never use honey.) Mix and store in the refrigerator until needed. In hot weather, clean the hummingbird feeder and replace the sugar water every few days.
Provide shelter, water, and insects
In addition to providing plants and feeders for hummingbirds, it’s important to meet their needs for shelter and security. Provide some evergreens for hiding and thick vines and shrubs for perching. Hummingbirds are such dynamos that we forget they spend about 80 percent of each day resting, perching, and surveying their territory.
Hummingbirds are too small to bathe the way songbirds do, but they like zipping through spray or “surfing” on wet leaves to remove sticky nectar from their feathers and beaks. Provide a recirculating fountain, a mist attachment on the birdbath, or a pond with a small waterfall.
It’s a little-known fact that hummingbirds have a carnivorous side. Small insects and spiders make up one-fourth of their diet. They also use spider webs in nest building, so don’t use broad-spectrum pesticides that kill all insects and spiders in your garden.
Once you have a garden that promises blooms from spring through fall (supplemented, if you choose, by nectar feeders), a water source for bathing, and trees and shrubs for hiding and resting, you’re almost certain to have small, whizzing visitors. Then sit back and enjoy some of the most dynamic birds on earth.
Val Cunningham is a nature writer in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of The Gardener’s Hummingbird Book (National Home Gardening Club, 2004).
Photo courtesy of Richard Day/Daybreak Imagery.