Hang the feeder and grab the camera! Throughout May, hummingbirds will be returning en masse to Howard County from their wintering grounds in Central America. The smallest of the world’s birds, these tiny flying jewels are now shopping around for summer homes. With a little planning, you can easily sell a few of them on the amenities of your own backyard or garden.
Hailed by many cultures as symbols of love, joy, life, luck and beauty, hummingbirds delight and amaze bird watchers. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an ornithologist to attract them to your neighborhood. After completing their epic journey north from Central America — a trip that includes flying 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico without stopping — they’ll be grateful for the simplest of creature comforts: some flowers, a splash of fresh water, a nearby tree to kick back in, and a feeder for extra nectar.
“If you had nothing but flowers in your garden, you could attract a lot of hummingbirds,” says Clarksville resident Susan Polniaszek. A master naturalist and a long-time member of the Howard County Bird Club, Polniaszek has been attracting hummingbirds to her garden for many years.
“You need bright flowers, and they are very attracted to red,” Polniaszek says. “I don’t know why they like red. Chances are it tells the hummingbird that ‘this is good nectar.’”
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, hummingbirds are found only in the Western Hemisphere. Among the 330 species of hummingbirds, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only type that breeds in the eastern United States, including Maryland.
Planting an assortment of bright, nectar-rich flowers and hanging a feeder are two great ways to invite “hummers,” as they are often called, to your yard. But don’t stop there. Create a hummingbird habitat. It’s fun, inexpensive and easy, and the best way to show your gratitude to the hummers for their hard work as pollinators and backyard entertainers.
Get into the habitat habit
“The word ‘habitat’ is an all-encompassing term,” says Cathy Franklin, a consultant at The Wildlife Authority in Ellicott City. “It speaks more than just setting up a bird feeder. [It’s] about planting the right plants and adding everything that would invite the hummingbirds into your yard.”
A habitat is a place where an organism can have the three basic things it needs to live: food, shelter and water. Think of your habitat as a haven where hummers can spend the summer months munching on insects for protein, sipping nectar from brightly colored flowers, refreshing with fresh water, and perching in the protective branches of a nearby tree.
The following are some simple tips for creating a cozy habitat on a shoestring budget.
For protein, hummingbirds feed on spiders, mosquitoes, gnats and fruit flies, but they’re more attracted to the nectar of red or orange tubular-shaped flowers like trumpet creeper and honeysuckle.
“To attract hummingbirds, the very first thing I would do is plant flowers,” Polniaszek says. “With pollinators, bright flowers is what they like.”
Polniaszek’s personal favorite is cardinal flower. Available at most nurseries, it’s about 18 inches high, bright red and importantly, a native plant. Some hummingbird enthusiasts put out only native plants, which are those plants that occur naturally in their local region. Planting native plants ensures there will be a variety of vegetation for birds, butterflies and beneficial insects to find food and shelter. Maryland is home to many pollen-rich native flowering plants that are attractive to hummers and available at many commercial nurseries, including white turtlehead, ox eye sunflower, bee balm, jewelweed, blue lobelia, impatiens, horsemint, primrose, sun drop, bear tongue and hibiscus.
Make a splash
A source of clean water is the one thing most people forget when planning a hummingbird habitat, Polniaszek says. Hummers need water for two reasons: They need to drink it, and they also need it to bathe.
“We are not the only animals who bathe,” Polniaszek says. “Birds get a lot of parasites on them, and by splashing in the water they clean themselves.”
If you plan to use a birdbath, make sure the water is never more than about an inch deep because hummers don’t swim. Installing a universal birdbath dripper (available for about $45 at The Wildlife Authority in Ellicott City and Mother Nature’s in Columbia) can make your birdbath more hummer-friendly. The dripper can also be positioned where it will splash against rocks or leaves. The little fellows adore the sound of dripping water and will rub their bodies against the rocks or leaves to bathe.
Misters provide one of the best water sources, as hummingbirds love to bathe on misted leaves. (A plastic, S-shaped, freestanding mister in a range of colors can be purchased for about $8 at Home Depot.) Misters are most effective when they are positioned to spray the leaves of a nearby shrub or small tree. Run the mister to water nearby plants, and hummers will fly through the mist to perch and bathe on a leaf that’s being sprayed.
Don’t forget to clean your water source regularly and to place it in the shade. If you put your water source out in the direct sun, you’ll have hot water, and hummers don’t enjoy hot water.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds measure about 3.5 inches long and weigh one-eighth of an ounce, making them great snacks for cats and other predators. For that reason, hummers don’t hang out in open fields. For shelter and nesting, your hummingbird habitat needs a couple of small trees or shrubs nearby. Many hummingbirds spend about 80 percent of their time perching on branches, so a nearby tree will give them a place to rest and ensure the coast is clear before darting toward a feeder or flower.
“The reason they go back to the tree is that when they are out feeding, they are vulnerable to predators, so they will come back, they will feed and then go to a branch nearby,” Polniaszek says.
Hummingbirds use lots of energy and consume 50 percent of their weight in sugar each day — that’s the equivalent of a human eating about 60 full-course meals a day. With that in mind, hanging a feeder filled with sugar water is a great way to supplement the diets of these little flying furnaces. When it comes to choosing feeders, the experts say to keep it simple. The most basic hummingbird feeders work fine and are the easiest to clean. For about $14 to $20, you can pick up a 30-ounce glass feeder (available from Mother Nature’s in Columbia, The Wildlife Authority in Ellicott City, as well as Walmart or Lowe’s) with six stations at the feeder’s base and a place for the birds to perch so that they don’t have to expend precious energy hovering while they eat.
“We like to carry feeders that are very easy to clean and don’t require tons of scrubbing,” the Wildlife Authority’s Franklin says. “Some of the more decorative feeders are very difficult to clean.”
For about $20, you can also buy a mini-shepherd hook — the kind you push into the ground — to hang your feeder.
There’s no need to spend money on manufactured “nectar” since it’s so easy and inexpensive to mix up a batch right in your own kitchen. The usual feeding mixture is four parts hot water to one part white sugar, boiled for one to two minutes and then cooled. Never use artificial sweeteners, and never use brown sugar or honey, which promotes the growth of harmful bacteria. And there’s no need to add red food coloring to the solution — why add chemicals the birds don’t need?
Hang your feeders in the shade to discourage fermentation of the sugar solution. Also, be sure to change the sugar water regularly, before it gets cloudy, or about twice a week in warm weather. Clean the feeders with a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water about once a week.
“What we usually tell people is to put up several feeders in different areas of the yard so that you can attract more birds, and more birds will get an opportunity to eat,” Franklin says. “And you certainly want to put them close to wherever you can see them. A good time to watch for them is at dusk. You can sit outside when the weather’s nice after dinner in the summertime and watch the birds. They will come in and load up on nectar right before it gets dark.”