NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A cool, wet spring in many parts of the country delayed the arrival of hummingbirds, but you can be sure they are now somewhere in your garden, especially if you have a smorgasbord of colorful flowers.
Hummingbirds, aka “hummers,” dart, dive and delight you with their fast-flying, acrobatic-like maneuvers as they search for nectar among flowers. They also like feeders filled with plain sugar water.
“I keep two hummingbird feeders in my yard, and have had luck attracting them with several plants: bee balm, salvia, fuchsia and nicotiana,” said Marilyn Adair, a gardener in Yorktown, Va. “I’ve also had hummers come to pentas on my deck.”
Along the East Coast, you’ll find only one hummingbird species, a migrant known as the ruby-throated hummer, according to Tim Boucher, a geographer with the Nature Conservancy.
“The ruby-throated hummingbird migrates from Central America in April, breeds in the East, and leaves in the fall to go back to the tropics.
“As you go south, you get more species — in Arizona for instance, you get up to 18 species — some resident, some migratory.
“In the tropics of South America, there are hundreds of species of hummingbirds, and you can see over 25 species at a single feeder in the Andes of Ecuador.”
Ruby-throated hummers and others among their species weigh less than a nickel, and can fit in the palm of your hand, according to Susan Summers, education associate at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.
They can fly at speeds of up to 29 miles per hour, and their body structure allows them to fly forward, backward and to hover.
“They have even been observed to throw a somersault every now and then,” Summers said.
Known to be long-distance migrators, they fly 18 to 22 hours, especially when crossing the Gulf of Mexico. To prepare for the journey, they feast on insects and spiders; along the way, nectar gives them quick and easy fuel.
Often, their migration is timed to coincide with flowering plants along their routes; their favorites include native species with red or orange tubular blooms. You can also hang mesh bags of fruits or banana peels to attract fruit flies, another favorite food source of hummers. They also like a source of fresh water, such as a birdbath for sipping and bathing.
Once they arrive at their destination, they get busy starting a family. Females make nests out of leafy materials woven together with spider silk and decorated with lichens, Summers said. The female lays two bean-size eggs, and raises the hatchlings herself from newborns to young adults within three weeks.
This year, the hummingbird is the focus of the National Wildlife Federation, which encourages residents living in any kind of housing — single-family home, apartment, condo or townhouse — to hang up a hummingbird feeder somewhere outdoors. Setting a pot of colorful flowers next to it also helps entice these beautiful creatures to your space, especially if you don’t have a garden.
“No, not only red flowers attract hummers,” Boucher said. “Blue flowers such as salvia, lungwort and agapanthus do a great job of attracting hummers. Remember, you want to plant a diversity of flowers in your garden — including flowers that bloom at different times of the year — from spring to late fall to provide sustenance for the little gems. Include flowers such as columbines, bee balm, phlox, foxglove, fuchsia, honeysuckle, trumpet creepers and goldenrod.”
To keep hummingbirds coming to your feeder, follow these sugar water feeder tips, courtesy the National Wildlife Federation:
Dissolve one part white sugar in four parts hot water.
Boil the water if you plan to store the nectar in the refrigerator.
Never use honey, which ferments easily, or artificial sweeteners, which have no food value for birds. Red food coloring is not recommended because it may be harmful to birds.
Let the solution cool to room temperature before putting it in your feeder. You can store homemade nectar for up to a week in the refrigerator.
Once you fill your feeder, don’t forget to empty, rinse and refill your feeder every two to three days (especially in warm weather) to prevent spoiling. This ensures that hummingbirds won’t become sick from drinking bad nectar.
In addition to nectar, hummers also eat insects for protein and minerals, according to Boucher. They eat all sorts of insects — mosquitoes, aphids, gnats and caterpillars — even spiders.
“Watch them carefully, and you can see them hawking for flying insects — they are very good at catching them in flight,” he said.
“People are fascinated with hummers because they are such terrific little fliers. Not only can they hover when feeding, but they are also the only species that can fly backward.”
For more information and tips on gardening for wildlife and certifying your yard as a Wildlife Habitat, with the National Wildlife Federation. The habitat program includes a subscription to the e-newsletter Wildlife Online, a year’s membership and subscription to National Wildlife magazine, as well as a 10 percent discount on wildlife federation catalog merchandise.