Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
[Note: as of this posting, the “hummers” appear to be in southern New England and lower New York state. You can check their migration online on a number of sites. Make sure your feeders are ready when they arrive!)
If you’re fascinated by hummingbirds, as I am, you probably hang out a feeder or two in the summer to provide them with sugar water. But did you know that hummingbirds also are attracted to many flowering landscape plants, particularly those that have brightly colored red and scarlet flowers?
Hummingbirds or hummers, as they’re often called, have been sighted in 49 states (all except Hawaii) and 10 Canadian provinces. However, of the dozens of species, only the ruby-throated hummingbird is found in Vermont. In fact, it’s the only species that lives and nests east of the Rocky Mountains.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in southern Mexico and Central America, returning to Vermont in mid April (south) to early May (north). It is fun to track their spring North America migration online (www.hummingbirds.net/map.html). To attract them to your yard or garden, you’ll need to meet their requirements for food, shelter, and nesting spots.
A hummingbird consumes about half its weight in sugar each day, feeding five to eight times per hour (up to a minute per feeding). In addition to sipping nectar from tubular flowers and feeders, this tiny, metallic green bird also feeds on insects, tree sap, and juice from some fruits.
Hummers tend to follow a regular route in search of food (called “traplining”) though are highly inquisitive. When selecting flower varieties, keep in mind that hummers are not attracted to fragrance, but rather color and nectar production. The color red, and to a lesser degree pink, rose, orange, and purple– bright colors that contrast with their backgrounds– are most seen by them. In planning a hummingbird garden, you’ll want to select plants with flowers of those colors, using a diversity of annuals and perennials for continuous blooms. Keep in mind that many cultivated hybrids (cultivars) produce much less nectar than their wild cousins or species.
Flowering quince, buddleia, and Catawba rhododendron are shrubs they find attractive. Fuchsia, cigar flower (Cuphea), lantana, nasturtium, salvia (especially Pineapple and scarlet sages), spider flower (Cleome), verbena, and snapdragon are annuals for summer bloom. Vines to consider are cypress vine, morning glory, scarlet runner bean, and the perennial trumpet creeper. Japanese honeysuckle vine is attractive to them, but is not recommended as it is invasive in many areas.
For early summer perennials plant bleeding hearts, iris, columbine, cardinal flower, lupine, and evening primrose. Summer flowering perennials include foxglove, hollyhocks (biennial), bee balm, tiger lily, penstemon, coral bells, hosta, scarlet campion (Lychnis), and phlox. Hummingbirds also like jewelweed, a wildflower commonly found in the cooler north and blooming later in summer (note that this can self sow prolifically).
Check with your local garden center or nursery for other suggestions, as well as for recommendations for disease-resistant varieties as it’s critical that you don’t use pesticides on or near the hummers’ food sources. Not only can sipping nectar from plants that have been sprayed sicken or kill the birds, but it also kills the insects hummers need for protein.
Females often build their nests on a downward-sloping, lichen-covered limb near or over water though may build in any deciduous or coniferous tree that provides adequate protection from predators such as hawks, Baltimore orioles, and other birds. The nests are only an inch or so long and are made of plant down, bud scales, and lichens, held together with saliva or spider silk. Newborns are about the size of a pea but grow rapidly and will start feeding on nectar in about a month.
Hummers spend nearly 80 percent of their time resting, so you also will want to provide plenty of places to perch. They’ll sit on twigs, leaf stems, fences, and even clotheslines in between searching for food. A favorite place in my yard for hummers is the very top of an upward branch or small tree, even if the branch is dead. They love to bathe and may be attracted to a splashing fountain or even droplets of water on leaves of broad-leaved trees.
Finally, if you want to attract these delightful little birds to your yard or garden, wear red! Although there’s no scientific data to support this, it seems that hummingbirds will check out anything red, even you! More on the life of this fascinating and friendly visitor to our summer gardens, including their sounds, can be found at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.allaboutbirds.org).