Find me a person who does not like hummingbirds. I’ll bet you can’t. Even people who don’t like birds like hummingbirds. Why? I think it’s because hummingbirds are completely amazing, captivating creatures. They verge on the magical. Their flying ability is second to none in the avian world. How many birds can fly backwards, upside down, in a corkscrew or lopping pattern, and can hover—all in the space of a few seconds. Answer: None.
We have 16 species hummingbird species that regularly breed in North American north of the Mexico border. Of these 16, just seven or eight have significantly large breeding ranges, and just one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, breeds in the eastern half of the continent. Most of our hummingbirds, or hummers as we birders often call them, live and breed in the West.
Hummingbirds are our smallest birds. The largest is the magnificent hummingbird at 5-1/4 inches in length from bill tip to tail end. The smallest is the Calliope hummingbird at just 3-1/4 inches. Named for the whirring hum of their wings, hummingbirds use their flying and hovering ability to access nectar in flowering plants. Their needle-like bills probe tubular flowers for nectar, which is lapped up by their specially adapted tongues. Brightly colored throat feathers, called gorgets, adorn most of the adult males. These gaudy colors are used to communicate, reflecting sunlight in flashes during courtship with potential mates and in territorial disputes with rival males.
We attract hummingbirds to our yards in two ways: by planting nectar-producing flowering plants and by offering a nectar-like solution in hummingbird feeders.
Blooming flowers are the very best attractant for hummingbirds. While the conventional wisdom has been that red or orange flowers are preferred by hummingbirds, I know from experience that “our” hummers visit flowers of all colors in our gardens and flower beds.
Among the flower families that are both popular with gardeners and hungry hummingbirds are these: Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), bee balm (Monarda spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia spp.), columbines (Aquilegia spp.), coral bells (Huecheura spp.), foxglove (Penstemon spp.), Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.), sage (Salvia spp.), and trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).
The best hummingbird-friendly flowering plants for your region/climate/soil might vary, but these give you a starting point. In planning your hummingbird garden, choose plants that will bloom during different times of the growing season, so you’ll always have some natural nectar available for your birds.
It’s not just nectar the hummingbirds get from our flowering plants. They also will eat aphids, gnats, and other small insects that live on and among the plants. Insects provide an important source of protein for hummingbirds.
In early spring before most of our hummingbird plants are blooming, we “cheat” a little and put up some hanging baskets with fuschias and impatiens that we’ve wintered over in our greenhouse. Before we had the greenhouse, we’d splurge for a hanging basket or two at our favorite garden center each spring. With these flowering plants out on the front porch, we knew we’d catch the eye of early-arriving migrants. Once we had them attracted, they would find our feeders, which would help keep them fed until our flower beds burst into bloom as the weather warmed.
Birding lore tells us that the very first person to feed a hummingbird was a young California girl who needed something to do while recovering from an illness. Noticing that the hummingbirds in her family’s garden were visiting a certain type of flower, she picked a few and filled them with sugar water. She held these in her hands while sitting near the hummers’ favorite flowering plants and, much to her delight, two male hummingbirds became her regular visitors. This happened in 1890! So you can see, backyard hummingbird feeding goes back quite a ways.
Hummingbird feeders are designed to deliver nectar to hummingbirds, much as a tubular flower does. But unlike a single flower, which produces a finite amount of nectar each day, a feeder can deliver enough sugar water to supply dozens of birds.
There are hundreds of options available when you are purchasing a hummingbird feeder. There are a few key things to look for, however.
- The feeder should have bright red parts to alert hummingbirds to its presence.
- It should be easy to clean and fill. Feeders with ornate decorations and hard-to-reach nooks and crannies are hard to clean and to refill.
- It should have a nectar capacity that matches your volume of feeding. A feeder that is too small will need to be filled multiple times in a day. A too-large feeder will not be drained of nectar before the nectar goes bad.
In spring we start out with a small feeder or two, because the volume of birds visiting the feeder is low—perhaps just one or two early-returning males. Over the next two weeks as the females return, the action at the feeders picks up and we add more and bigger feeders to our backyard.
I know that our first hummingbird returns in the spring here in southeastern Ohio about April 5th. In anticipation of that major sign of spring, we have a few small hummingbird feeders cleaned, filled, and ready.
Over the years we’ve settled on a few feeders that we use over and over. In general terms these are models that permit feeding by numerous birds at once. They are simply designed so they are easy to fill and to clean. And they don’t drip or leak! Ask at your local wild bird store for advice on the best feeders.
Where to Hang a Feeder
As with seed or suet feeders you’ll want to hang your hummingbird feeders where the birds can find them easily, where you can see them and access them easily, and out of direct sunlight to keep the nectar from growing mold (something the heat of the sun encourages).
Mold happens. Combine sugar with water and add a little heat—there’s no way to avoid it. But by washing out your feeder every time you refill it, you can keep the mold at bay. We keep a special hummer feeder cleaning brush near the kitchen sink all summer long. After filling the feeder with hot, soapy water, we scrub it out with the brush. Special port-cleaning brushes are used to keep the feeding ports clear and clean. Any place we find a small bit of black scuzz growing on the feeder, we attack it. After the soap comes a good cleaning rinse with plain water, then a refill and re-hanging. We often find the hummingbirds hovering in place, waiting for the feeder to return to its familiar spot.
Red Dye: Why?
There has been much debate over the years about the addition of red dye in hummingbird solution. It’s true that red attracts hummers. But it does not have to be in the form of dyed nectar. A red ribbon hanging from the feeder, or red parts on the feeder itself will serve the same purpose. Red dye is completely unnecessary and should be avoided whether you are making your own solution or buying solution mixtures at the store.
If you have a hummingbird feeder, you will get an adult male who feels the feeder should be his sole province. He will fight all other birds that attempt to visit the feeder, often crashing into them with a smack to drive them off. I used to recommend that the solution to this was to place other feeders around your yard, out of sight of your bully male. I found, however, that this only serves to permit other bully kingdoms to be set up.
Now I recommend that you group all of your feeders in a tight clump. In late summer, when adults and the young birds from the first brood are all trying to visit the feeders, your bullies will get tired and overwhelmed. Soon they will just give up and let everyone feed in peace.