Though there are more than 330 species in the Americas, the ruby-throated hummingbird is generally the only species that makes the Mid-Atlantic its home between spring and early fall, before flying across the Gulf of Mexico to winter in Central and South America.
To regularly see the petite winged wonders while they’re in the region, you need to transform your garden into a hummingbird haven. We spoke with three experts about how to create an enchanting environment that will draw hummingbirds to your yard, including how to feed them and what to plant. Here are their suggestions.
Go flower forward. Hummingbirds are attracted to the nectar from a variety of flowers. They work as natural pollinators as they move between blossoms, so the more flora, the better. Emma Greig, project leader of Project FeederWatch with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recommends bee balm (Monarda), cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and hanging baskets of fuchsia. John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities with the National Audubon Society, suggests planting trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and some species of milkweed, including swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and common milkweed (A. syriaca).
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Don’t forget trees and shrubs. Hummingbirds like to nest and roost in spots that are protected, secluded and not too close to the ground, so trees and shrubs are critical. The birds use bits of lichen, plant downs and fibers, twigs, and spiderwebs to create cuplike nests that they attach to branches. These larger plants also attract a bounty of insect life, an important source of protein for hummingbirds. “Pagoda dogwoods and flowering dogwoods are great insect-supporting native plants,” Rowden says. “And oak trees offer a smorgasbord of insects.”
Embrace native plants. “Native flowers often attract native insects, which promote native birds,” Greig says. Not sure what to plant? Audubon has a Native Plants Database where people can search by Zip code to determine which hummingbird-friendly plants will grow in their area and where to buy them.
Nix pesticides. “Pesticides are the number one threat to hummingbirds,” says Sheri L. Williamson, author of “A Peterson Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America.” “There have been some recent studies which have found alarming levels of pesticides in hummingbird urine and feces. Pesticides can interrupt migratory instincts and cause the birds to lose weight.” Additionally, these toxic substances can kill off the insects they rely on for food, as well as spiders, whose webs are a key building material for their nests.
Give the little guys a big sugar rush. Hummingbirds love nectar. In addition to planting lots of flowers, gardeners can make a simple substitute by mixing 4 parts boiling water with 1 part sugar. Let the sweet solution cool before putting it in the feeder. “We don’t recommend adding anything else, such as food coloring, vitamins or other extra doodads you can buy,” Greig says. “Most are totally unnecessary. There [are] no studies showing they are beneficial, and they may be harmful.”
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Get a good feeder. There are many feeders on the market, but there are only two important elements to a good one: You must be able to see clearly into the area holding the nectar, and the feeder must be easy to take apart for thorough cleaning. “In warm-weather months, check it every two to three days to ensure there’s no cloudiness in the nectar,” Rowden says, because that’s probably a sign of a bacterial or fungal growth that could be harmful to the birds. “If you see any, it’s time to wash it out.”
Put the feeder close to a window. This might sound counterintuitive, but “the closer you put your feeder to the window, the safer it is for birds,” Williamson says. “This way, when they get spooked off a feeder — maybe they see a hawk flying by — they don’t get up as much speed by the time they bang into the window, so they won’t hurt themselves that much.”
Help them see the windows. When birds smack into your windows — known as window strikes — they can seriously injure themselves, leave themselves vulnerable to predators or even die. Consider applying window clings, stickers or decals to your windows to alert birds to the presence of the glass. Williamson recommends placing the stickers two to four inches apart for maximum effectiveness. Or, she says, you can purchase an Acopian BirdSaver, otherwise known as Zen curtains, which have parallel lines of thin cords that stretch vertically across a window.
A birdbath is nice. A birdbath gives hummingbirds a place to drink and bathe. Just make sure to check it once a week or so to ensure the water is clean. “Put in stones that breaks the surface of the water,” Rowden says. “This allows them to know the depth of the water and gives them something to perch on, since hummingbirds have very weak feet.”
A little pond is nicer. If you have the space, money and inclination, building a small pond on your property will exponentially increase the chances that your yard will be a hangout for hummingbirds. “It becomes a functioning ecosystem,” Williamson says, “attracting some of the tiny little insects with aquatic larvae whose adult forms are very important food for hummingbirds, like gnats and midges. Don’t worry: They don’t bite or transmit diseases. You’ll provide a richer, more diverse food source for hummingbirds, and might even attract breeding hummingbirds.”
Mind your pets. Cats and dogs are threats to the birds in your yard, so keep them inside or limit their time outside to when someone can keep an eye on them. Don’t think hummingbirds are exempt from these risks because of their speed or small size. “Hummingbirds are hovering by plants, well within reach,” Rowden says. “And they are tasty little morsels for pets.”
Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. His website is nevinmartell.com. Find him on Twitter and Instagram: @nevinmartell.