Buds for Birds – Mighty Mites!

Ruby-throated hummingbird at Monarda

Ruby-throated hummingbird at Monarda

Everyone loves Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but have you thought about where they are when they aren’t with us in Pennsylvania? The hummers that breed here or pass through while heading farther north mostly winter way down in southern Mexico and Central America. Most of them get there by making a 600-mile nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico!

Hummingbirds need the right food and in sufficient amounts to fuel their migrations north and south. They need energy for nesting and raising their young, too. In fact, with wings regularly going at over 50 beats a second and hearts working at up to 1260 beats a minute, just being a hummingbird is highly energy intensive. Read Sense of Wonder: Celebrity Interview with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Hummingbirds will soon be arriving back in our state, so let’s talk about how to provide good food sources for your hummingbirds.

Flowers for Nectar
Many people use hummingbird feeders to provide sugar water to hummingbirds. That’s fine if you’re prepared to clean the feeders often—every second or third day in hot weather. (By the way, use a 1 to 4 ratio of white table sugar to water, never use any other kinds of sweeteners, and never use red dye.) If you don’t keep up with cleaning, these feeders can make your birds sick from mold or bacteria, and they also can attract ants, bees, and yellow-jackets. Why not provide your hummingbirds with Mother Nature’s always-clean, always-healthy sources of nectar? It’s better for them, and it’s easier in the long run for you. Flower nectar also provides some nutrients that are not available in sugar water.

Columbine flower

Columbine flower, Aquilegia canadensis

Red, orange, and pink tubular flowers are most attractive to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. It’s no coincidence that these flowers have a shape that fits a hummingbird’s bill well, since hummingbirds and certain flowers have co-evolved to benefit each other. The flowers attract the hummingbirds so they will transfer pollen from plant to plant, and the hummingbirds carry out that pollination while feeding themselves. Read the Hummingbirds: Jewelled Messengers movie review.

So, which native plants specifically? Eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a great early bloomer that fits the bill, literally and figuratively. Bee balm (Monarda didyma) is a mid-summer bloomer that hummingbirds love. (Bee balm may seem like more of a puffy ball, but if you look at the flower head closely, it is composed of a cluster of many small, tubular, individual flowers.) Cardinal flower or red lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis) is another to consider, along with blazing star (Liatris spicata). Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) is a late summer bloomer that can persist into fall.

Although these are the classic hummingbird attractors, hummers will feed on other plants as well. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are useful early-season flowers, and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a mid- to late-summer option. Penstamons (Penstemon digitalis and other native Penstamons), which may be white or pale pink, also work. Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) flowers are not tubular, but hummingbirds seem to like them.

Coral Honeysuckle flower, Lonicera sempervirens

Vines, Trees, and Shrubs for Nectar
Plants that are not flowering perennials also produce flowers that hummingbirds can take advantage of! Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), also known as trumpet honeysuckle, is a great, well-behaved vine that blooms in May and can repeat bloom all the way into the fall. Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is also very attractive to them, but it has large, aggressive roots, so only consider this one if you’ve got plenty of space for it to roam. (Be sure you distinguish trumpet vine from trumpet honeysuckle if you are shopping for one or the other.) Flowering shrubs such as native azaleas and native rhododendrons (all in the Rhododendron genus) are also food sources, as are native flowering trees such as redbud (Cercis canadensis) and red buckeye (Aesculus pavia).

Aim for Different Bloom Times
Check the bloom times of the plants you’re considering, and aim for a mix that will bloom from early spring into the fall. Hummingbirds need a good supply of nectar from the moment they arrive in the spring through when they are fattening up for fall migration. Bee balm, for instance, is an excellent hummingbird plant for mid-summer, but it won’t help them in April or September. (Besides, you don’t want to see hummers only in July, do you?)

Insects are Also Important!
Hummingbirds may give the impression that they live on nectar because you most often see them feeding at flowers, but they need fats, proteins, and other nutrients just like other birds. As for many other bird species, insects are an important source of nutrients in their diet. A benefit of adding plenty of native plants to your garden is that these plants will help produce the insects that hummingbirds need.

This includes trees and shrubs, by the way. They are important homes for insects. On that subject, I’ve never seen anyone write about white pines as attracting hummingbirds, but I have a dwarf white pine near my back window, and I’ve often seen hummingbirds dart around it picking little insects off. The tree has been healthy, so I don’t think it’s due to any unusual infestation.

Speaking of insects, avoid spraying your plants with insecticides if at all possible, and use the minimal amount in a targeted fashion if you feel it is essential to save some plant. Spraying broadly will kill all the beneficial insects, including critical food sources for hummingbirds and other birds, and it can poison the birds in the process.

A Few More Tips
Hummingbirds (and other birds, and butterflies) prefer flowers planted in sizable clumps. It makes for more efficient foraging.

Be sure there is shelter from predators nearby in the form of shrubs or trees (and keep cats indoors, since they are known to catch hummingbirds). Read Protecting Birds from Cats. Hummingbirds also like an open branch somewhere up high to perch on.

Hummingbirds are frequent victims of collisions with glass, so protect them and other birds by treating your windows. Read Bird Collisions – Practical Steps.

Barbara Malt, Vice President of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society

Photo Credits:

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on bee balm (Monarda didyma) by Ryan Patrick

Columbine and Coral Honeysuckle flowers by Karen Campbell at FocusOnNatives.com