Flying Jewels of the Garden – the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Ruby-throated HummingbirdThis year has been an incredible year for hummingbirds in my yard. I’ve always put out a feeder for them and have enjoyed their acrobatic aerial displays, but this year there seem to be many more than usual fighting over the sweet nectar I put out for them. It’s now towards the end of summer and I have to fill some of my feeders twice a day to keep up with their voracious appetites.

But it makes sense that they would be seeking a sugar high and trying to fatten up their tiny bodies to nearly twice their normal weight: the usual 3-4 grams (about the weight of a nickel). They’ve got a long journey ahead of them. It’s hard to believe that these tiny creatures, measuring about 3.5” from the tip of their long beaks to the end of their tails, will soon make the long trip to another country. For those birds in Wisconsin and Canada, that may mean more than a 2,500-mile trip back to Central America, where they will spend their winters until next spring when they make the long haul back to our yards. Consider also, that many of them will need to fly the more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico without stopping. The non-stop trip across the big pond alone will take approximately 20 hours.

It’s a small miracle to imagine the journey of these delicate beauties. The metabolism of a hummingbird is so incredibly high that it needs to consume several hundred calories per day and several ounces of nectar and insects. By comparison, if a human used as much energy as a hummingbird, that person would need to consume twice their body weight each day just to stay alive.

There are dozens of hummingbird species in the world, but Wisconsin and the United States east of the Mississippi River is host to only one, the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. They arrive in late April or early May and stay until late September and October. Hummingbirds fly. Sounds strange to say that, but consider this: that’s all they do. They do not walk. They will not even pivot on a perch. If they want to move a ¼” or turn around and face another direction, they fly to get there. The hummingbird species is the only bird able to fly backwards, sideways, hover in one spot for up to 50 minutes, even fly upside down.

I’m always amazed at how fearless they are, zooming past me at 25 miles per hour as I walk in the garden or fill the feeders. If I stand still, I’ve even had them land to take a drink while standing only inches away.

The female Ruby Throated Hummingbird is slightly larger than the male and lacks the characteristic iridescent brilliant ruby red throat patch that the male has. Sometimes the male’s throat appears black in low light, but once you see it catch the light, there’s no denying the similarity to its namesake jewel. The backs of both the male and female are a brilliant emerald green, while their stomachs are a soft white to light gray.

Though I’ve searched through the years, I have yet to see a hummingbird nest first hand. ruby-throated-hummingbird-nest-wallpaper-3It’s no wonder, since it measures only 2” wide and is concealed with lichens to blend into the small angled branch it is built on. I do enjoy seeing the female hummingbirds gathering nesting materials: soft plant parts and silk from spider webs. Their plain white eggs, usually 2, are said to resemble small jelly beans. They hatch in 16-18 days, revealing tiny, naked babies who will double their size each day for the first few days, and leave the nest after three weeks.

I’ve spoken to many friends who’ve expressed disappointment that they couldn’t attract hummingbirds to their yard because they live in the city. But hummingbirds will gladly visit most yards in urban or rural areas, as long as you provide what they need: food and habitat. So, here are several of their favorite flowers that you can include in your garden to attract these beauties. In addition, a homemade nectar recipe is included to help supplement their diet and further attract them to your yard.

FAVORITE PERENNIALS:

  • Monarda (Bee Balm)
  • Heuchera (Coral Bells)
  • Phlox
  • Hosta
  • Delphinium
  • Foxglove
  • Russian Sage
  • Columbine
  • Milkweed
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Honeysuckle
  • Trumpet Vine
  • Weigela (shrub)

FAVORITE ANNUALS:

  • Fuschia
  • Zinnia
  • Petunias
  • Verbena
  • Geranium
  • Lantana
  • Salvia
  • Nicotiana
  • Four O’Clocks
  • Morning Glory

While hummingbirds are attracted to brightly colored flowers, they will gladly sip nectar from a wide variety. Consider plants with tubular shaped flowers, allowing for their long beak and monofilament-like tongue to extract nectar from deep within.

HOMEMADE NECTAR

1 part white sugar

4 parts water

Boil water and completely dissolve sugar. Keep in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Note: Do NOT add red food coloring to your mixture. While they are attracted to the bright color, the added chemicals are unnecessary. Most feeders already have colorful components and will suffice. It is important to clean your feeders. Never let the nectar spoil or get cloudy, meaning you should change it every few days in hot, humid weather. Do not use honey in your feeders because it ferments easily and can lead to a fungus that will harm the birds.

The hummingbird is among my favorite garden friends. I hope you will be able to enjoy them more bountifully as well with these tips.

 

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2 thoughts on “Flying Jewels of the Garden – the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

  1. Where do you place your feeders? I’ve tried sun and the nectar goes bad. I tried partial shade and they wouldn’t go near it. Thanks.

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  2. Mine are in the sun, but it does mean that you need to continually monitor and often replace the nectar. Another good reason to use clear nectar that you make yourself: it’s easier to see if it’s murky or starting to get moldy.

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