Hanging with the Hummingbirds
By Linda Roe
Certified Professional Horticulturist, Wight’s Home and Garden
Zeeerrr!! A blur of wings and sound flies past your ear. Before your brain registers what your eyes have seen, she’s gone, heading for a sweet meal or defending her buffet table from any interlopers.
Feisty for such small birds, hummingbirds measure three to four inches long head to tail, and weigh no more than a nickel. They can fly at more than 25 miles per hour and expend more energy for their weight than any other animal. Because they use so much energy, they must eat over half their body weight in food, and drink eight times their body weight – every day! A hummingbird will eat every 15 – 20 minutes, then perch and digest the food.
Besides nectar, they eat a smorgasbord of insects and other bugs. Hummingbirds catch the insects in mid-air or pick them off of plants, which is a great reason to encourage their visits. In the evening they fill their throat pouches called “crops” before nightfall, then digest food slowly throughout the night. This could be the reason that they are more active around the feeders in late evening and early morning.
‘It’s not the size of the bird in the fight…’ Hummingbirds are very territorial and will defend a good food source from birds many times their size. I’ve seen a hummingbird take on two finches and a robin, and drive them away from favorite flowers. This is why it is not a good idea to site your hummingbird feeder near your other birdfeeders.
Hummingbirds’ agility is due to the unique design of their wings which rotate from the shoulder, allowing them to get power from both the up and down strokes. They can fly backwards, sideways, and straight up and down – amazing! The males of many hummingbird species use a series of dives and loops in their mating displays – showoffs!
Once you see one perch, you can make the identification as a Rufous or Anna’s. The males are more brightly colored than the females and are easy to identify. Rufous hummingbirds are rusty red brown with a red throat. Anna’s are green with a red crown and throat that might appear black in low light. The females are trickier to identify, with Rufous females having rusty brown sides, and Anna’s are green with a small, red dot at the throat.
Rufous are summer visitors only, arriving in spring and leaving in fall. Can you believe that they fly all the way to Mexico and back? When they arrive the spring, that feeder better be ready! Anna’s are non-migratory, so if you plant more winter blooming plants, such as Mahonia “Charity,” you will begin to see more of them.
How do Anna’s survive the Pacific Northwest winter? They slow their metabolism down in cold weather, entering a state called “torpor.” I have noticed they find shelter in a tree that is very close to my feeders, but they sometimes stay in an ivy basket next to my front door. Hummingbirds are well worth their cost in feeders and sugar water (one part sugar to four parts boiled water) in entertainment value.
Besides hanging and maintaining feeders, you can attract hummingbirds by setting out a buffet of their favorite flowers. Start with red bloomers to attract their attention. Then, try a pot of bright orange Salvia, red petunias or fuchsias. Once the birds show up for dinner, they are not picky eaters and will visit flowers of many colors if they have high nectar content. They prefer tubular shaped flowers because their long beaks and tongues are suited to draw nectar from them.
Be sure to plant for a succession of bloom throughout the year to keep the hummingbirds around. Red flowering currants and Oregon grape are good early starters, followed by honeysuckle, columbine, and fuchsia and petunia baskets. Then plant a buffet of summer blooming perennials. Many summer annuals and perennials will bloom well into the fall – as the flowers decrease in number keep those feeders clean and full. Replace nectar often so it won’t spoil in the heat! Along with something sweet to eat, hummers are also attracted to moving water and will fly through spouting fountains and sprinklers.
Hummingbirds also need to be safe. Please be very careful with chemicals and remember that systemic products will poison your plant nectar along with killing pests. Also, if you have outdoor cats use only tall hummingbird plants (try crocosmia) or hanging baskets lest you have a bird buffet of a different sort.
Enjoy and observe your birds! Learn more about these feisty flyers and you will always be entertained.