Hummingbirds In Your Summer Garden

This time of year is my favorite time to watch those jewels of the garden, hummingbirds.  Hummingbird feeding at red flower Sometimes they look like huge insects as they fly from flower to flower in search of nectar.  But hummingbirds very fast and straight flight is what makes them easier to distinguish than the zig-zag, slower pattern of insects.

In this area of North American, we “just” have one species of hummingbird – the Ruby-Throated.  If you live in areas of the southwest or west, you are likely to have more species.  When we lived in southern California, it was wonderful to have “hummers” all year long due to the mild weather and flowers that were always in bloom.  And we are really blessed living in North America since hummingbirds are strictly a New World species that is not seen in Asia, Africa, or Europe.

This time of year, it’s possible to see not only adult hummingbirds, but young fledglings as well.  Typically, hummingbirds will have 2 young in their tiny nests placed in trees or shrubs.  And the female does all the young rearing with the “deadbeat Dads” going elsewhere to look for other mates or defend feeding territories.

Which brings me to attracting hummingbirds.  The easiest and fastest way to attract hummingbirds is with a nectar (or sugar water) feeder.  There are many styles of feeders for sale on the market and they generally don’t cost much.  I prefer the saucer shaped feeders where the birds feed from above (see the photo).  Hummingbirds at nectar feederThese are easier to fill and clean, and don’t leak like the traditional gravity-fed feeders where the birds feed below where the nectar is stored.

You should locate the feeder in a garden where there are flowers or insects the birds will be attracted to.   I like to mount them on short crook poles that locate the feeder just above the flower level.  This makes them easier to find.  Feeders with some red-colored parts help to get the birds’ attention.  But if it doesn’t have any red, simply hanging a red ribbon from the feeder will suffice.

One huge key in attracting hummingbirds with feeders is keeping the nectar fresh.  Replace the nectar every 3-5 days WITHOUT FAIL even if you’re not seeing birds come to it.  The nectar will start going bad after this time.  You don’t need to buy commercial mixed nectars either – especially the ones with the red dye.  Just mix regular table sugar with water at the ratio of 4 parts water to one part sugar.  Boil the water, mix in the sugar until it dissolves, let it cool, and refrigerate what you don’t use.

The other major way to attract hummingbirds is with flowers they’re attracted to.  The best types of flowers to plant are ones with long, tubular flowers as these are the ones hummingbirds have evolved to cross-pollinate with their long beaks and tongues.  Examples are penstemon, fox gloves, columbines, coral bells, fuschia, and trumpet vine.  And many people don’t realize that hummingbirds can’t live on nectar alone.  They need to eat tiny insects too, which they also feed to their young.  The flowers will help attract these insects as well.

Unfortunately, most hummingbirds leave the northern states in the fall as they head south to Mexico and Central America to spend the winter.  However, as I had mentioned states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico can have hummingbirds all year round.   So, it’s important to keep your feeders up through most of October in most northern and central states.  That will help in case a few “stragglers” are moving through late.



Hummingbirds still hanging around

Here in southern Michigan, it’s great to still be seeing hummingbirds coming to our feeders and flowers.  We only have one hummingbird specie in our area – the Ruby-Throated.  And normally, they depart any time now.

Obviously, as flower nectar sources start to dry up in late summer, hummingbirds must migrate south.  And they have a very long way to go!  Most hummingbirds in North America winter in central America.  But if you live in southern Arizona or southern California, you may still see some species like Anna’s and Costa’s even during fall and winter. 

I remember living in San Diego years ago, one of the real treats of winter birdfeeding was still seeing Anna’s hummingbirds.  Of course, we had a great climate where flowers could grow year-round.  (Why the heck did I move to the Midwest again?!)   But generally, birds only migrate because of a lack of available food in their breeding areas as weather cools. 

So, my advice is to keep those hummingbird feeders filled up for now!


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Cornell Lab of Ornithology