Last summer, I was working in my garden when a ruby-throated hummingbird interrupted his rounds and hovered a few inches in front of my face. We were eyeball to eyeball. He seemed to be thanking me for planting all these nectar-bearing flowers.
Hummingbirds are social beings. At my parents’ home in Maryland, long ago, a group of hummingbirds returned to the many feeders and hanging baskets of fuchsia every summer. I was told that late one day, out on the patio, the beautiful birds flew from person to person, with an extra moment of hovering as if to say farewell, and then took off on their long annual migration to Central America.
Hummingbirds are amazing creatures, so small, smart, iridescent and energetic—such fun to watch as they hover, flip, sip nectar and fly backward. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, the ruby-throated hummingbird is our only variety. It takes 10 of them to add up to an ounce. The male sports a glossy black cap, a raspberry-red chin atop a white throat, and brassy and bronze feathers everywhere else. The female plays it safe with tasteful brown and beige feathers.
The male mates and protects the territory. The female builds a nest from spider webs and soft, threadlike grasses, lays two tiny white eggs, and cares for the chicks. The nests are usually found five to 30 feet above the ground under dense tree canopies that are open and airy.
If you provide the kind of environment where hummers can live safely and eat well, they will come. They sip nectar from my flowers on a predictable schedule and pattern, adjusting as different kinds of blooms come and go. Nectar is sugar water produced by flowers to attract pollinators such as butterflies and hummers. Favorite sippable flowers at my place are cardinal flower, jewel weed, impatiens balfourii, red geraniums, scarlet runner bean, peas and sweet peas, coral bells, nasturtium, azalea, and lilac.
Hummingbirds also eat insects for protein (they love to dine on aphids) and sip sweet sap from trees, harvested from little holes left in the bark by woodpeckers. They need water. When it rains or there is dew, they drink droplets from leaves. They also use birdbaths, though it’s best if they’re not on the ground, as cats are a danger. They also like perches like tree branches near their favorite flowers. They do need to rest from time to time.
I’ve read that hummers go into a state of semi-hibernation if spring weather turns very cold. They appear to be sleeping or dead, hanging from a tree. I’ve never seen this, but I’m on the lookout.
Nectar-bearing tubulars are preferred; the birds have special long tongues for sipping as they hover. Plant the flowers strategically where you can observe visits through your windows or terrace. Flowers like zinnias have colorful bracts or petals that catch our eye, but hummers find their small, tubular true flowers in the middle and feed from them.
Hummers don’t have a good sense of smell. They’re attracted by red, orange and purple flowers, which they can see from quite a distance. Their ability to hover gives them access to dangling flowers such as fuchsia that are hard for other nectar-loving creatures to reach.
Don’t spray the plants with insecticide. For one thing, the hummers like to eat small insects. For another, they may be susceptible to the toxins.
Here’s a concise list of popular flowers preferred by Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. Grow them in rich, moist soil to keep the blossoms coming. The effect of all these blooms is quite romantic, especially with the hummingbirds adding color and magic to
PLANTS THAT ATTRACT HUMMINGBIRDS
Larkspur (annual form of Delphinium)
Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana species)
Geranium (Pelargonium species)
Impatiens (all types)
Peas and sweet peas
Bergamot & bee balm
Lilies (all types)
SHRUBS AND TREES
Cypress Vine (grow as an annual)
Scarlet Runner Bean
Trumpet Vine ο