Food is where hummingbirds need the most help. Because of their high metabolism, they are eating constantly. They need energy in the form of nectar or sugar water and protein in the form of small insects. Gardeners can help out with both. Feeders filled with a solution of one cup sugar to four cups boiled water (to make sure the sugar dissolves fully) provide needed energy.
Years ago, it was thought that the sugar solution should have red dye in it. This is because hummingbirds are attracted to red. However, it turns out that red dye is toxic to hummingbirds. They eventually develop cancer or other health problems from it. Honey and artificial sweeteners will make them sick or kill them, too. So stick to the solution of one part sugar stirred into four parts boiling water, then cooled before being set out. Keep the solution in the refrigerator and use it within a couple of days.
By growing plants that provide nectar and a source of small insects for the hummingbird, you can both attract and feed more than you can from a feeder. Hummingbirds and plants have evolved to suit one another. Tube like flowers like the trumpet vine are ideally suited to the long bill of a hummingbird. There are no petals to foul the wings of the hovering creature, and the pollen is placed where it will brush onto the bird as it feeds. As the hummer moves to the next flower, it brushes that flower with pollen while picking up more for the next trip.
Three plants that attract hummingbirds are hibiscus, turk’s cap, and bee balm. As you can see, all three are red. They also have their nectar and pollen accessible to the hovering hummingbird.
Hibiscus is a tropical plant that can be grown in gardens in the South. It does freeze in the winter further north, but can be grown in post and brought in. Hummingbirds love these flowers, which only last a day or so. They bloom for a long time during the summer, with new flowers opening each day. Not all hibiscus is red, but since hummingbirds prefer red flowers, choosing a red cultivar makes sense.
Turk’s Cap is a funny looking flower. The shrub is native to Texas and Mexico. It blooms from May to November. Turk’s cap can tolerate drought and partial shade, qualities that make it good for those parts of the garden that are too shady for most flowering plants.
Bee Balm is even odder than turk’s cap. It is also native to Texas and large parts of the eastern United States. This plant blooms in spikes up to three feet tall. Bee balm is a member of the mint family and shares the common tendency to spread, so containers are a good idea with this plant.
When planning your hummingbird garden, keep in mind that they need food throughout the spring and summer so plant groups of plants that blooms at different times. That way there will always be flowers for the hummingbirds to feed from.
It used to be thought that if you left your hummingbird feeder out, you would cause the birds to stay around too late in the year and they would freeze. Newer research shows that the birds migrate on time even if you leave the feeders out. In fact, migrating birds use the feeders for an extra boost of energy while flying to and from their winter grounds.
Hummingbirds can be aggressive when defending feeders from other hummingbirds. Planting flowering plants spread widely enough that no one bird can defend all of them is one way to deal with this. Multiple nectar feeders spread out along your eaves also works.
If you use feeders, clean them out regularly with warm soapy water, then make sure all soap residue is gone before filling them. If they mold, it can kill the birds who drink the nectar with mold in it.
Hummingbirds are neat little birds. They are fun to see feed. As they get used to you, it is possible to get fairly close to them if you sit still and allow them to come to you. Try it and see!
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