Feeding Hummingbirds

April 29, 1996

     Ruby-throated hummingbirds, those tiny green jewels of rural, suburban, and occasionally even urban gardens, will return to the Niagara Frontier soon.  If you wish to attract them to your yard, prepare for their arrival now.

     Hummingbirds usually reach this area in early May with their numbers increasing through mid-month.  They will have completed a migration that began weeks ago when they set out from Costa Rica to fly north across the Gulf of Mexico.  An ornithologist once argued that they had to ride across the gulf on the backs of large birds like eagles because they were too small to make such a long flight on their own, but it is clear now that their remarkable accomplishment is unaided.

     Although the rest of their trip is less strenuous, they will arrive here with fat supplies seriously depleted.  They desperately need such food as nectar and small insects.  This year, with the season set back almost two weeks by our protracted winter, they will be hard pressed to find these necessary resources.  On years like this I have even seen hummingbirds feeding at sapsucker drill holes.

     To help these tiny birds and to lure them to your yard, act soon.  Hang out baskets of bright red fuchsias or impatiens and hummingbird nectar feeders.  You can find these enticing food sources in garden stores or you can make feeders by painting chemistry test tubes red and mounting them with wire. (Bring flower baskets inside if frost is predicted.)

     To make nectar simply add a quarter cup of cane sugar to a cup of boiling water.  Don¹t use honey as it is the wrong kind of sugar.

     These suggestions and many of those that follow are taken from an information packed book, ³Hummingbird Gardens² by Nancy L. Newfield and Barbara Nielson.  It is rich with anecdotes gathered from those who feed hummingbirds across the country.

     I hope that many readers will wish to go beyond the emergency measures I have indicated.  You can easily modify your gardens to make them attractive to hummingbirds and many of the flowers you set out will serve butterflies as well.

     First some general recommendations:

     (1) Although hummingbirds will feed on blue and even white flowers, they are most attracted to bright red.  Be sure to include red, pink, or orange flowers in your garden.  Color alone is not enough, however, as flowers like red roses do not provide ample nectar.

     (2) In addition to engaging flowers, large trees and shrubs are necessary for hummingbird shelter and nesting habitat.

     (3) Choose flowers with staggered blooming times.  Although spring bloomers will serve now, you will need summer and fall blossoms to retain and maintain your visitors.  Even if you fail to get hummers early in the year, fall flowers may draw southbound migrants and young birds to your garden.  Also watch in fall for that rare visitor from the west, the rufous hummingbird.

     (4) Keep your yard pesticide free or you will injure these tiny birds.  They will return the favor by providing insect and especially mosquito control.  If you still face specific insect problems, use mild but effective insecticidal soap.

     (5) During dry periods provide shallow water for bathing.

     Finally some planting suggestions: Flowering quince, lilac, and autumn olive serve early nectar.  Summer flowers include bee balm, red-hot-poker, foxglove, hollyhock, Mexican sunflower, daylily, salvia, and jewelweed.  Add vines like trumpet creeper, red morning glory, and honeysuckle and trees like crabapple and horsechestnut.  Among late bloomers are viburnum, phlox, and cardinal flower.

     Color your garden with handsome flowers and you should attract these feisty iridescent hummers.