Article

Humdingers

A constant food and water source and a secluded place to rest are all a hummingbird needs to call your yard home. 

By Mary Robson December 28, 2008 Published in the June 2008 issue of Seattle Met

FOR SOME GARDENERS, the first signs of spring aren’t daffodil blooms or cherry blossoms. Instead, the high-pitched chirruping and the zings of wings beating hundreds of times a minute call bird enthusiasts into their yards. “I hear them 
before I ever see them in the spring—they bring such excitement,” naturalist Ron Sikes says of his visiting rufous hummingbirds. Others don’t receive as subtle an announcement. “If I don’t get the feeders up in time, they will come to my window and remind me by hovering and chattering,” says birder Billie Fitch.

Seattle hosts two hardy visitors from the more than 340 unique species: the Anna’s hummingbird and the rufous hummingbird. The male Anna’s features a mellow green body and a vivid pink-red crown that makes it stand out. You’ll know the male rufous by his green back, white chest, gold crown, and feisty, sometimes pushy behavior around feeders. Both arrive here from their southern wintering grounds in early March (though Anna’s have recently been known to stay year round). The strongest males reach us two to three weeks before the females, fighting each other for mating and nesting territory, settling where they find ample food and shelter. A few quick preparations will have them landing (and staying) in your garden.

The food supply comes first. Hummingbirds, driven by need, explore potential food sources constantly. Their appetites astonish.
 Adult hummingbirds, weighing around one-tenth of an ounce, gulp at least half their weight in food daily. Place one or more feeders where the birds can perch and hide, preferably in shade where hot midday sun won’t spoil the food.

A varied, densely planted garden that incorporates flowering shrubs and perennials is also critical. “The main thing I’ve learned in 30 years of watching hummingbirds is that you need both the feeders and plants they can go to for nectar,” says Bob Barca, who named his Whidbey Island garden Hummingbird Hill in honor of his favorite birds. Choose plants whose bloom times vary in order to keep food sources plentiful into late summer, concentrating on those at least 24 inches tall to allow for easy swooping. Best for spring is Washington’s native currant (Ribes sanguineum), which blooms in March. Russell Link, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, recommends wild azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) and native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa). Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) and yellow-and-red native columbine (Aquilegia formosa) also offer abundant spring food for busy hummers. Summer-blooming plants such as annual blood sage (Salvia coccinea), penstemon (Penstemon gloxinoides), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea), and the Chilean glory vine (Eccremocarpus scaber) will keep hummers in your garden well into August. Be it spring or summer, hang flower baskets near feeders to complete your siren song. Fuchsias, particularly those with smaller flowers such as the hardy ‘Isis’, will feed hummingbirds through midsummer. 

With their food supply in good order, hummingbirds will begin to look for consistent water sources—they require up to eight times their body weight in water each day. Offer simple, low-pressure water options. A basic fountain installation that sends up a fine shower rather than a stagnant birdbath is a great choice. The bravest will even fly into the spray of a handheld hose in dry weather. 

Unfortunately, the plants you landscaped for your hummers’ food source don’t make secure homes. Plant conifers to attract overnight visitors and, eventually, baby hummers. From April to June, female rufous hummingbirds lay two pea-size eggs in well-hidden nests no bigger than half a golf ball. Actually spotting nests or fledglings is rare, even for hummingbird groupies. Barca has looked for two decades and never found a nest in his half-acre garden. Even if you can’t see the babies, you will be rewarded. Hummingbirds can live up to six years and will return to familiar feeding sites. And take it from Fitch—don’t be late getting your feeders up in spring.

 

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