Nothing is more exciting than catching a glimpse of a hummingbird flitting through your garden. At least one species of this diminutive bird can be found in all parts of the country, and if you’re lucky enough to attract them you’ll know how they earned their name. Hummingbirds flap their wings so rapidly—approximately 50 to 80 flaps per second—that they actually produce a humming sound when they fly.
It’s easy to provide the basic elements of hummingbird habitat in your garden and encourage these feisty little birds to take up residence in your neighborhood.
Provide nectar. Hummingbirds feed on flower nectar and are attracted to red, so include red-blooming plants in your hummingbird garden. Always select native plant species first. These are the plants that hummingbirds have been feeding on for thousands of years. What’s native varies greatly by region, so check with your local native plant or birding group to find out what will attract hummingbirds in your area.
How you arrange your plants will affect your garden’s attractiveness to hummingbirds. Individual plants are hard to spot from the air and won’t provide enough nectar by themselves. A bed filled with clusters of several species of nectar plants, however, will be much more successful.
You can also attract hummingbirds by putting out a feeder with homemade nectar. You can use a pre-packaged powder to make nectar, or make it from scratch by dissolving one part white sugar in four parts water. Never use honey, which can grow mold and bacteria that sicken hummingbirds. Don’t use artificial sweeteners, either, because they lack the calories these birds need to support their high-energy flying.
Allow tiny prey to go pesticide-free. Hummingbirds cannot survive on nectar alone. They also need tiny insects, spiders, and other invertebrates as a source of protein. When you’re tempted to grab the pesticides, remember that many pesticides not only kill hummingbirds outright, but also rob them of an important food source. Having a diversely planted, pesticide-free garden will ensure that you have plenty of invertebrate prey for hummingbirds.
Install a birdbath or mister. Hummingbirds drink water and bathe in it to keep their feathers clean. They’ll use a standard birdbath for these activities as long as it’s not too deep. They are also attracted to the sight and sound of moving water, so adding a pump-powered mister will make your water feature irresistible to hummingbirds. They enjoy flying through the fine mist of water, effectively bathing on the wing.
Give them a place for home sweet home. Hummingbirds build tiny, cup-shaped nests. They use spider webs, plant fibers, and seed down to create the cup, and then add lichens to the outside surface. They build their nests in a fork in the branches of dense shrubs and trees. Add a shrub row or other woody vegetation to give hummingbirds a protected place to nest.
Hummingbirds have co-evolved with the plants on which they feed. The birds and the plants depend upon each other for survival. It’s no random happenstance that hummingbird flowers are long and tubular. This structure forces the bird to put its whole face into the flower so its long bill can reach the nectar in the bottom. In doing so, the bird’s face and forehead are dusted with pollen, which it then passes to the next flower as it continues feeding. When it does this, it pollinates the flower, thus ensuring that the plant will produce seeds for the next generation.
David Mizejewski is the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004), the host of Animal Planet’s “Backyard Habitat,” and a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.