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.


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


  • 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.


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.


Sunflowers for Birds


Mammoth Grey Stripe Sunflower

Time to start planning that flower garden for this summer. Sunflowers are one of the best plants you can have in your garden. You can attract the following bird species: cardinals, chickadees, house finches, titmice, grosbeaks, nuthatches, goldfinches, red-bellied woodpeckers, and pine siskins.

Pick the Right Variety

You can find many sunflower options on the market today, but not all of them are suitable food sources for birds. When selecting sunflowers, make sure they produce a good supply of seeds. Some of experts’ top picks include Mammoth Grey Stripe, Paul Bunyan, and Aztec Gold.

Growing Tips

Sunflowers are truly one of the easiest plants to grow, but they do have a few requirements. They need at least six hours of sunlight per day and well-drained soil. They benefit from organic matter, and also keep the area under sunflowers mulched for better results.main-qimg-5977490348a0e3209b5297e1e5303e06-c

Ready for Seeds

Sunflowers have the best seed buffet in late summer to early fall. For longer harvest time, stagger your planting, early spring to midsummer. This way, you can attract birds for months.

Harvest Tip

Gather your sunflower heads, and put them in a dry place to dehydrate. You can then hang them out by your feeders, extending the sunflower season all the way into fall.


Gardening Companion

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Official_BirdIt was a Sunday afternoon in early March. It was much warmer than any other March that I could recall in my history. I had just returned from church and stepped out of my car to go into the house when that familiar and unmistakable sound stopped me in my tracks. My heart skipped a beat with excitement and I knew what it meant. My official harbinger of spring had arrived. Scanning the still bare trees, I caught a glimpse of its silhouette lofting from branch to branch. My delight suddenly turned to concern, realizing I wasn’t ready!

I ran into the garage, scrounging behind various dusty and dirty garden tools and supplies, still hibernating from the winter. Reaching beyond the clutter, I grabbed the birdhouse still affixed atop a metal pole. I ran out the door to the middle of the yard, carefully putting it in position. Grabbing the pole and leveraging my entire weight on it to thrust it into the ground, only to realize that even though the temperatures were summer-like, the ground was still frozen only a few inches beneath the surface. Running back into the garage, I searched for my ice pick, returning to feverishly pound a hole in the ground. Pounding. Pushing. Straightening. Repositioning. I finally got the house in place and secure in the ground. A sense of satisfaction overtook me and I stepped back to admire my work, expecting my gardening friend to flutter down from a branch on cue. It was then I realized I was still wearing a dress and my Sunday shoes.

There is one migratory bird that delights me more than any other. The bluebird. I suppose it’s because I don’t have any children of my own, that I become a little more obsessed than the average person. I care for these little creatures as though they were a beloved family pet. To me, they are. I nurture them, provide a home for them, and try to protect them from the enemy, sadly, sometimes unsuccessfully. I even feed them, and they’ve become accustom to my presence in the garden. The Eastern Bluebird is becoming more common in our country landscapes. Not too many years ago the very existence of bluebirds was threatened by loss of nesting habitat by deforestation and the use of DDT on farmlands. In recent years, however, there’s been a resurgence of their population as the use of such chemicals has been banned and many people are setting up bluebird trails. I like to think that I’ve played a small role in their comeback, even if it is just one little family of bluebirds in my front yard.

Bluebirds live in the country and prefer open spaces. So, if you live in the city, the likelihood of you getting a family of bluebirds is doubtful. They are cavity nesters, meaning they need a house or abandoned woodpecker hole to nest. They cannot excavate a hole on their own like a woodpecker though, so in nature, they depend on a symbiotic relationship with other cavity nesters to provide their home. They also compete with other cavity nesters and are often threatened by other birds. The most destructive competitor is the common house sparrow.

House sparrows are known to destroy bluebird nests and even kill the adult birds and their nestlings. They are enemy #1. While it may seem difficult, the best solution to this problem is to eliminate the house sparrows. Since they are a non-native species, it is legal to destroy them. Just one experience of finding a bludgeoned lifeless mother bluebird atop a brood of dead babies will quickly dispel any fondness you may have once had for house sparrows.

Other deterrents involve using fishing line or other tactics, some with minimal results. 18 Another competitor is the common starling. Dissuading them is as easy as using a bluebird house that has the proper hole dimension of 1½” in diameter. The proper size hole will insure that starlings will not enter the house. However, if you still have problems with starlings, it is also a non-native species and can be legally removed or destroyed.

When trying to attract bluebirds, go the extra measure to make sure you are using a house with proper dimensions and ventilation. The competitor I most often encounter, however, is the common house wren. Unlike the house sparrow and starling, wrens are a protected migratory species and it is illegal to destroy or remove them. Some wrens co-exist fine with bluebirds, while some are more competitive and will stuff boxes full of sticks and sometimes destroy the eggs. If you find your bluebird eggs strewn on the ground with puncture holes, you can be assured it is a wren. I have mourned the loss of more than one bluebird clutch because of wrens. The best deterrent is to place your birdhouse as far away from wooded areas as possible.

The most difficult competitor to dissuade, however, is nature itself. In spring, freezing temperatures threaten young nestlings. I have lost three broods to hypothermia in the past. They are most susceptible when they are between 5- 9 days old. This is when they are too big for the mother to sit on them, yet they do not have many feathers and are not big enough to produce enough heat on their own to keep warm. This year, I was determined not to lose a brood to the cold. I purchased a new house made of wood (more insulated than the plastic house I previously used). I went to even greater lengths, wrapping three sides of the house in thin pipe insulation. For five nights when temperatures dipped below 40 degrees, I went to even greater lengths, inserting a pocket hand warmer beneath the house and covering with more insulation to provide some bottom heat for the babies. Desperate? Yes. Successful? Yes! I had a brood of four babies fledge! Bluebirds lay anywhere from 3-6 eggs, and rarely more. The largest brood I have ever had was six. I monitor the babies by checking on them daily until they are about 12 days old, after which it is no longer recommended to check them for fear they may prematurely fledge.

I also feed my bluebirds. You can purchase dried meal worms at Fleet Farm in the bird il_570xN.815577227_3n91feeding section. I simply soak a small handful of them for about a half hour and then place them near the feeder. The bluebirds have become accustom to the daily morning ritual of me providing them breakfast. They hover above me as I place the worms in a dish on my driveway, and shortly after turning away to go back inside, they’re already picking worms out of the dish and flying up in the trees to feed their babies. My latest battle is with a fat robin who keeps stealing my bluebird’s worms. So, I found an old wrought iron decorative bird cage and put it over the dish of worms. The bluebirds can fit through the rungs, while the robin grows increasingly frustrated as it tries to squeeze through, unable to reach the worms. I chuckle at the sight of it.

The mother bluebird is starting to build another nest now, and I’m hopeful she’ll have another brood, assuming the wren leaves them alone. I removed the previous nest as soon as the babies fledged. There are entire books on bluebirds and how to attract them to your yard. I could go on and on in this article, kind of like a mom likes to talk about her kids. So, for those who would like to learn more, I’ll direct you to a great website I have found. On it, you can learn more about the bluebird of happiness, research proper birdhouses and problem-solve. It is It will tell you all you ever wanted to know about this garden companion.


Snow Birds

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Winter is here. That means that most Ruby-throated hummingbirds have flown south to another whole continent, along with Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings and a host of other feathered friends we won’t see until Spring or early Summer. But that doesn’t mean we can’t longingly peer out our kitchen window in hopes of seeing some other feathered delights!

Winter Visitors


Dark-eyed Junco

Believe it or not, Wisconsin winters are a “retreat” for some birds. There are several species of birds that migrate for the winter south to Wisconsin from Canada. One of these birds is the very common Dark-Eyed Junco. It is a beautiful small gray bird with a white belly. They are easily recognizable at bird feeders, feeding on thistle, cracked sunflower, and other smaller seeds. They are more often ground feeders. They love snow. I have seen them practically playing in a blizzard.

Another winter visitor is the Redpoll, a member of the finch family. Redpolls will not visit every winter. In fact, I only saw them for one season about ten years ago when Canada was experiencing an unusually harsh & frigid winter. In these cases, Redpolls will migrate south to Wisconsin in search of food. When they appear it’s called an irruption. It is almost like they are refugees in a foreign land.

White Throated Sparrows are another favorite sight on a dreary winter’s day. They are


White-throated Sparrow

commonly seen in winter in Wisconsin and at first glance may look like a plain old house sparrow. But not so! Look closely and you will see the white throat, yellow patches near its beak and the black and white stripes on its head. They prefer foraging on the ground rather than sitting on a feeder, so be sure to scatter some seed at the base of your bird feeder.

Goldfinches … “What?” you say. Many people believe that those “wild canaries” leave for the winter and are replaced with brown sparrows. Goldfinches remain in Wisconsin for the winter but lose their summer plumage. Continue to put out thistle seed for goldfinches and come spring, you will have a backyard of sunshine.


Rule number one: all living things need water, and providing a source for birds is critical in the winter months. Many heated bird baths are available from various retailers and can range anywhere from around $30 to over $100 depending on how fancy you want to get. The key if you get a bird bath heater is to make sure it is thermostatically controlled. This will help save on energy bills and only heat the water when temperatures are freezing. I have often looked out my kitchen window on a freezing morning to see birds perched all the way around my bird bath. It’s a wonderful sight to see.


Birds in winter need to maintain as much body fat as possible. So it’s important to provide food that will help keep a bird’s metabolism up to keep warm. One of the best sources of fat and protein for birds is suet. Keep lots on hand in the winter. Woodpeckers love it and their stark plumage adds color to your life.

As far as birdseed is concerned, I recommend not purchasing inexpensive bird seed mix. Check the ingredients! Many mixes contain filler seeds like Milo and millet. A small amount of millet is okay, but Milo is a seed with an extremely hard shell that is almost impossible for most birds to open. Some cheap birdseed mixes contain up to 35% Milo, which is practically all waste material. In addition, it has very poor nutritional value. Personally, I just purchase plain old black sunflower seed for my larger feeder, and thistle seed for my tube feeder. These basics have worked well for me. I have also purchased some nicer mixes and combined them with a larger bag of sunflower seeds to offer some variety.

Remember to shovel away or press down the snow underneath feeders to help ground-feeding birds. Scatter some additional seed on the ground.



Black-capped Chickadee

An important aspect of birding in the winter is to provide protection. Small birds are more vulnerable to hawks and predators in the winter because there is less cover. Some of this may require planning ahead by planting dense shrubs, evergreens and wind breaks. However, a simple way for those who use real Christmas trees is to simply place your tree about 10-15 feet from your feeder after the holidays are over. Another way to provide protection is to make or purchase a roosting box. Smaller birds like chickadees will use them to huddle together at night when resting and to escape the winds. Other possible cover includes wood or brush piles.

Don’t forget your feathered friends this winter! I’ve generally found that the more birds you have, the more birds you’ll get! By feeding them through the winter you’ll have a better chance in the spring of seeing new species dropping in to see what all the chirping is about!

Life Lessons from the Garden: From a Chore to a Delight

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

I grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time. It was overwhelming. Spring had arrived, and the yard was strewn with litter, leaves and pine cones. But I pressed on, determined to conquer my yard. As I inched along I noticed a chickadee in a tree about twenty feet away. He’d swoop down to grab a single sunflower seed from my bird feeder and fly back up to his familiar branch. He’d sit and crack it against the bark to open it, eat the nut, and fly back down. This went on for quite some time, and as I continued to rake, I got closer and closer to my new-found companion. The chickadee didn’t seem to mind that I was now only a couple feet away. He flew down once again, right in front of me, and snatched a seed. I stood there for a moment, admiring his bravery. Curious, I leaned my rake against the feeder and reached inside to grab a handful of seeds. Raising my hand to the sky, I thought, “It sure would be cool if he…” Just then, the little chickadee flew down and landed on my finger. It felt like a whisper and I almost winced at the touch of his tiny feet. He gave a scolding chirp, grabbed a single seed and flew back to his perch. I stood there motionless for a moment with my hand outstretched. But inside my heart leapt with excitement and disbelief.

In an instant, the tedious chore of raking my lawn became a delight. I didn’t have a very willing attitude when I first started raking my lawn. But I obediently did it, despite my reluctance. And I was rewarded with an unexpected treasure. I think that’s true in life too. There are many things I know I “should” do, but I always find an excuse to put it off. Maybe there are areas in your own life where you are reluctant and unwilling because the sacrifice of time, money or effort seems overwhelming. But as is true with working in the garden, a great, and often, unexpected reward awaits you. Honestly, I can’t wait to experience the joy of raking my lawn this spring. But I would not have that willing attitude, had I not… grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time ..

Tammy is a regular contributor to Garden Snips