Hummingbirds are amazing creatures. A hummingbird weighs about the same as a nickel and can fit in the palm of your hand. With its needle-like bill it probes tubular flowers for nectar while hovering on wings that beat 55 times per second. If you hang a nectar feeder by a window for close observation, you can see the bird's pulsing heartbeat, a rapid 615 beats per minute. Hummingbirds consume 50 percent of their weight in sugar each day, attracted to showy flowers such as cardinal flower, bee balm, trumpetvine, morning glory, azalea, columbine and jewelweed. Hummingbirds also feed on small insects for the protein they provide.
During the hummingbird migration from Central and South America, the sexes travel apart, with the male preceding the female in arrival time. Before leaving the tropics for the long trek across the Gulf of Mexico or northward along the coast, they fatten up on nectar and insects, often doubling their weight. Hummingbirds migrate chiefly or exclusively during the day, arriving in Virginia from about mid-April until the end of May. However, they do not seem to migrate in relationship to any particular flower blooming times, and individual birds may migrate at different times from year to year. Once settled into our neighborhoods, the wee birds breed from early May to mid July and usually lay a clutch of two, tiny white eggs, in two different broods and sometimes three.
The hummingbird's nest is extraordinarily small, about the size of a quarter, covered with moss, lichens and spider webs and lined with the down of thistle or dandelion. This nest is carefully constructed on the horizontal limb of a tree, usually more than six feet off the ground, and sometimes over water.
The sexes remain together for only a few days or until incubation begins. Thereafter the males and females compete for flower sources, intolerant of each other while feeding, aggressively chasing each other with gravity-defying acrobatics. These feisty birds also display aggression towards insects such as bees as well as other birds that may fly through their territory, sometimes chasing them in hot pursuit.
At night, the hummingbird's rapid metabolism slows in response to the cooling temperatures. This type of overnight dormancy is called torpor and is not true hibernation, for in the morning the bird resumes its energetic activity upon warming up.
Is There a Hummer in Your Garage?
Since hummingbirds are hard-wired to feed from brightly colored flowers-especially red ones-the birds will often explore any object in the yard with a red color. This might include odd things like red tennis shoes on the porch, the red tip of a weathervane, or even a garage door handle. Apparently garage door handles are painted red as a safety feature (for people, that is); but if you leave the door open, a hummingbird may enter the garage to inspect the handle and then get trapped inside. Typically, a hummingbird will fly up to the ceiling to try and escape-evidently their instincts tell them to go up, not down and out the door. Many of us have had the experience of using a broom to try and "steer" a hapless hummer away, to no avail. Unfortunately, a hummer in this situation will eventually exhaust itself and wind up on a tool bench or on the floor. At this point you can gently pick the bird up and take it outside to the safety of a nearby shrub or tree.
To avoid luring hummingbirds into garage entrapment, there are a few things you can do. The easiest, of course, is to keep the garage door shut during the day! Or, some folks have suggested temporarily camouflaging the door handle in a less conspicuous color. Another option is to hang a hummingbird feeder in a visible area well away from the garage, somewhat out in the open, so the birds will be more likely to go to the feeder than the door handle.
Speaking of feeders, spare yourself the expense of buying manufactured "hummingbird nectar" and mix up a batch right in your own kitchen. All it takes is 1 part sugar to 4 parts water; stir this up in a pot, bring it to a boil (which will help retard spoilage later), and allow to cool. At the beginning of the season, start with a small batch of sugar water; you can keep any extra in a jar in the fridge for about a week. (A small batch would be ¼ cup sugar to 1 cup water; this is enough to fill the feeder in the photo about 2 times.)
As you can see from the photo at right, some people opt to put red food coloring in their sugar water, but this is unnecessary. The birds are readily attracted to the red ornamentation of the bottle on its own merit, especially when the red is in the form of a flower that directs the hummingbird where to probe.
Watch the feeder to see how many birds are using it. If you're not home much, you'll know when hummingbirds have been around because the level of the sugar water keeps dropping! As the season progresses and more birds frequent your yard, you may need to refill the feeder more often. Plan to refill the feeder once a week during the middle of the summer, whether the birds empty it or not, because sugar water will ferment in the extreme heat. For this reason, avoid placing the feeder in direct sunlight; a better place would be under the overhang of a porch.
Because male birds are territorial and try to defend their food sources, you're likely to see a dominant male dive-bombing other hummers that try to use the feeder. Not a problem; just hang another feeder out of sight of the first, on the other side of the house. The male bird can only defend so much territory, and this will give the other birds a chance to sip!
Plant a Hummingbird Garden
For enduring hummingbird visits that last the test of time, there's nothing more rewarding than a garden of red flowers. Other colors will do, of course, as these birds are opportunists and will visit all sorts of other flowers, including those on trees and shrubs. Tubular shapes are most inviting, such as trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), which is not to be confused with Japanese honeysuckle; trumpet vine (Campsis radicans); and Monarda.
For lists of additional plants to use in your garden and more about feeding hummingbirds, check out these articles:
- "Hummingbird Gardens," from the Prince William Master Gardeners of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service
- "Attracting Hummingbirds," from Penn State University
Visit these Web sites for other hummingbird facts and natural history: