By Edie Parnum, Co-Director, Backyards for Nature
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the favorite backyard bird of most of us who love birds. We adore watching this tiny sprite zip around the garden, dipping into flower after flower with its long bill. Incredibly, it can hover in front of a blossom, motionless except for its blurring wings and swaying tail. Sometimes it even flies backward. And the male’s dazzling, iridescent red throat–we can never see it often enough. However, some people are perplexed about why no hummers are seen regularly, or not at all, in their yards. In fact, ruby-throats are usually easy to attract by planting the flowers they favor and offering clean sugar water in a commercial feeder.
Hummingbirds are attracted to yards with a profusion of flowers from late April to midSeptember. They like red (or nearly red) tubular flowers of vines like Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) or perennials like Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and Bee Balm (Monarda didyma). However, they are fond of non-red flowers, too, like Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), White Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Blazing Star (Liatris spp.), Phlox (Phlox paniculata and P. divaricata), and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Ruby-throats will also use the flowers of native shrubs such as Pinzterbloom Azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) and Swamp Azalea (R. viscosum) and trees including Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis), and Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). You can entice hummingbirds to use a feeder by initially hanging it close to the flowers where you see them nectaring. A red ribbon fluttering in the breeze nearby will also help attract the attention of passing hummers. After you see them using the feeder, you can gradually move it closer to your house where you can easily view the hummingbirds. The dispenser should be filled with a solution of one part sugar to four parts water. Adding red food coloring is not necessary and could be harmful to the hummers. Boil the sugar water and cool it before filling the feeder. An ant guard filled with water will keep ants from reaching the sweet solution. Because it can sicken them, hummingbirds avoid using spoiled sugar water, so it is crucial to thoroughly clean the container and refill it with clean solution at least once a week in cool weather and every 2-3 days in hot weather.
You may be surprised to learn that hummingbirds eat insects and spiders, too. They need protein, so they hawk flying insects like gnats, fruit flies and mosquitoes and glean foliage and bark for caterpillars, aphids, and maggots. Please refrain from using pesticides, a sure way to eliminate the insect life so important to hummingbirds and other birds.
Once you have enticed Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to your yard, you will have opportunities to enjoy watching their behaviors. Sometimes a male hummingbird will do a pendulum arc display flight for a perched female. Males will frequently chase other males, females, and juveniles away from favorite feeders and flowers. Although tiny and dainty looking, hummingbirds are actually very aggressive toward each other. However, they are tolerant of humans and will sometimes even buzz at you when you’re wearing red. As you can see, once you have hummingbirds in your yard, watching them is definitely entertaining.
More Hummingbird Facts: • Hummingbirds drink 50% of their weight in nectar each day, so they must void the human equivalent of 20 gallons a day.
- Ruby-throats usually weigh about 3.5 grams. Before migration they need to double their weight.
- In addition to a long bill, they have a long tongue for reaching nectar inside a flower. The tongue, when retracted, wraps around the back of the skull.
- After mating, the male does not associate with the female and takes no part in incubating the eggs or feeding the young.
- Because they return to the same territories each year, you can expect “your” hummingbirds to use your yard year after year. In fact, even the hummers that are passing through during migration will return to the same flowers and feeders.
- During migration Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fly 600 miles nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. They fly 30 miles per hour for a minimum of 16.5 hours.
- Hummingbirds enjoy flying through a spray of water and bathing on wet leaves. Commercial misters are available.
- They beat their wings 55-75 times per second.