Turn Your Yard into a Hummingbird Spectacular

Turn Your Yard into a Hummingbird Spectacular

Make smart plant choices and, with a little bit of work, your backyard can host these tiny miracles (and help scientists save them).

By Scott Weidensaul
Published: May-June 2013

For creatures that weigh barely more than a penny, hummingbirds certainly give you your money's worth--through their metallic colors, feats of aerobatics, and pugnacious, outsized personalities.

But for all their popularity, there is a lot that science still doesn't know about the lives of even the most widespread hummingbird species. For example, what proportion of ruby-throats fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, a nonstop trip of about 500 miles, instead of detouring around it? And why are many rufous and other western species of hummers expanding their winter range into the East and Southeast? (See "The Drifter," March-April 2010.)

Climate change also poses serious threats. "Scientists are finding disturbing changes to blooming times of flowers and also to arrival times of hummingbirds," says Gary Langham, Audubon's chief scientist. "The potential mismatch of nectar sources and hummingbirds means we must monitor this closely and be thoughtful about what we plant in our yards and communities."

Fortunately, it's easy to make your yard a hummingbird haven even as you help scientists learn more about these feathered jewels.


Build a Habitat

Hummingbirds are attracted to flowering plants (see sidebar), but they need more than just nectar. To draw hummers, create a complex, varied backyard with staggered blooms that also includes feeders, perches (dead saplings "planted" in the ground work well), a natural abundance of insects, and places to hide when predators are near. Avoid using toxic garden chemicals--after all, as much as 60 percent of a hummingbird's diet is actually made up of tiny insects, spiders, and other arthropods, so the birds are providing some natural pest control. The hummingbirds will also appreciate a water mister that creates a fine spray in which they can bathe.


Feed 'em Right

Choose a hummingbird feeder that comes apart completely for regular scrubbing, inside and out, with a bottlebrush and hot water. Use only a mix of four parts water to one part plain white sugar--never use honey, which promotes dangerous fungal growth, molasses, or brown, raw, or organic sugar, which contain levels of iron that could be lethal. Plain white sugar perfectly mimics the chemical composition of natural nectar; don't waste money on commercial mixes. It's not necessary to boil the water, but keep any extra nectar refrigerated, and empty the feeder every few days, more often in hot weather. Never use red dye; nectar is naturally clear, and the coloring could be harmful.


Count Their Blessings

You can do your part by getting involved in a newly launched Audubon citizen science project called Hummingbirds at Home, which aims to provide details about which nectar sources hummers are using nationwide--and will give you a chance to explore these amazing, mysterious aerialists. Langham says, "The Hummingbirds at Home project asks people to help us determine what hummingbirds are feeding on in their communities, so we can better understand how to help." Learn more at Audubon.org/citizenscience.


10 Plants for Hummingbirds

Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans). A sprawling, aggressive vine, it produces large, bell-shaped blossoms with abundant nectar. Plant it where it can climb a fence or a dead snag.

Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). This vine is a reliable nectar source for rufous and other hummingbirds wintering along the Gulf Coast. But ruby-throats in the Southeast tend to avoid it.

Coralbells (Heuchera hybrids). Long a garden staple, coralbells come in a bewildering number of varieties. The masses of tiny flowers always draw hummingbirds.

Jewelweed/spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis and I. pallida). One of the most important sources of late-summer nectar for migrant ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata). Comes in shades from white and pink to orangish and purple, but the red form is most attractive to hummers.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). The quintessential hummingbird plant, this widespread native bears intense red blossoms in summer and early fall.

Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Unlike the invasive Japanese species, this vine is not aggressive. It has long, tubular flowers (in yellow, orange, and red varieties).

Beebalm (Monarda). Available in a range of cultivars and colors; many native Monardas are also appealing to hummingbirds.

Penstemons. The genus Penstemon includes P. barbatus, which blooms in late summer when rufous hummingbirds are migrating.

Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea). This tender Southern native is a Salvia, a genus that ranks among the very best for luring hummingbirds.

There's An App for That

Audubon's new Hummingbirds at Home project aims to enlist concerned citizens to help scientists understand how climate change, flowering patterns, and feeding by people are affecting hummingbirds. Get the app at Audubon.org/citizenscience.

This story originally ran in the May-June 2013 issue as "Magic Show."

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I have a feeder I put up

I have a feeder I put up every year, I usually just get females (probably the same one), but last year, I managed to get 2 males who fought over it

I also live in New York City

I also live in New York City in an apartment with a terrace. What's the best kind of hummingbird feeder to use? You can buy some with nectar but is it better to just mix water and white sugar? one magazine suggested using a jar of any kind of jam or jelly but that doesn't sound right to me.

If you live in the southeast,

If you live in the southeast, firebush is a GREAT hummingbird plant. It can be maintained as a bush or hedge or trimmed to a small tree. In south Florida they bloom all year and also attract butterflies. And birds, especially cardinals, love the berries. Great plant!

What do you suggest we grow

What do you suggest we grow for our plentiful hummingbirds at 7600 feet altitude? Our growing season is short and colors are not prevalent: mostly blues, whites, purples and yellow. Reds, pinks, etc. are hard to come by unless you have full sun and bedding plants.


In Central Florida we found

In Central Florida we found the native Firebush (Hamelia patens) to be great for feeding Ruby Throat Hummingbirds and also Zebra Longwing butterflies and the fruit attract Mockingbirds and others.

Is there a nursery on CA's

Is there a nursery on CA's Central Coast that specializes in native plants?

Try this listing from te

Try this listing from te California Native Plant Society.

This is the more general statewide listings with further links by area.

Also, a lot of high-quality nurseries in this general area carry natives as part of a palette that includes drought tolerance and other traits. I happen to be very fond of Regan's Nursery in Fremont for things like ceonothus and native rose species, for instance, but they carry all kinds of things.

Hope you find a great place or two to help you pick and give you good advice!

I live in New York City.

I live in New York City. I've heard that hummingbirds have been seen here. Can anyone verify? If so, I'd like to do what I can to participate.

We had hummingbirds in

We had hummingbirds in Westchester around pots of red geraniums!

I live in Westchester, and,

I live in Westchester, and, yes, we had hummingbirds around pots of red geraniums!

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