It's a long flight from Costa Rica, Panama or Mexico to your back yard. But that's how far the tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds that are now returning to nest in Maryland have migrated after wintering in tropical climates.
Homeowners can encourage these hungry, emerald-green travelers to stop and spend the summer - bringing a touch of animation to their gardens.
All it takes is a variety of brightly colored perennials and annuals - from lobelia and bee balm to trumpet creeper, bleeding heart and salvia - as well as a mix of favored shrubs and trees.
A carefully planned garden with lots of petunias, geraniums, impatiens, begonias and zinnias can support several busy hummingbird families, providing abundant nectar and a source for small insects and spiders until the birds head south in late September.
Hummingbirds like to feed from flowering shrubs that include azaleas, rhododendron, crape myrtle, weigela, rose of Sharon and butterfly bush.
Coral bells, garden phlox, delphinium, hollyhocks, columbine, dianthus, hostas, perennial hibiscus and day lilies are also tasty treats. (Try to avoid using pesticides and herbicides that may harm the birds.)
Add a feeder filled with fresh sugar water and a birdbath that sprays water for the perfect hummingbird environment. They love to bathe and drink water, and will fly through the spray of a garden hose or sprinkler.
Even balcony gardeners and urban residents who live near a park or wooded area can attract hummingbirds with flower-filled window boxes, pots and hanging baskets supplemented by a feeder, according to Jennifer Cromwell, a department manager for Valley View Farms.
Plant a few horse chestnut, tulip-poplar, hawthorn, flowering crab apple and mimosa trees, and the fast-moving birds that fly backward and upside down may settle in and lay two tiny eggs in a walnut-sized nest made from ferns, bits of plants, spider webs and lichen.
Look for the males with their brilliant red throats to arrive before the white-breasted females. Both are drawn to gardens with splashes of red - their favorite color, some say. Red blossoms, a red cap on a feeder, even a red ribbon will do.
Once the hummingbird has become a regular visitor, it should feed happily at flowers of all hues. Many of the flowers hummingbirds like also attract butterflies.
Voracious eaters that visit 2,000 blossoms each day, they have an extremely high metabolism and must feed every 10 minutes during the day. They hover at trumpet-shaped blossoms, poking their needle-like bills inside and licking the nectar.
A clothes hanger straightened and rebent into an upside down L-shape makes a perch for tiny feet and can be poked into the ground to provide a resting place among the flowers for these birds, whose wings move so rapidly that they produce humming sounds. Listen carefully for their vocalization - a rapid, squeaky chirping.
They are said to prefer the nectar of flowers but will also visit a feeder. Hang it among flowers or in front of a window for easy observation. The fearless birds often eat from the feeder while people sit quietly in the area.
Place the feeder in the shade, or the solution will overflow and ferment quickly from direct sunlight. Fill with a purchased or homemade nectar made from one cup sugar and four cups water, said Elaine Sweitzer, naturalist for Carroll county at the Piney Run Nature Center in Sykesville.
Boil until the sugar dissolves, cool before filling the feeder and refrigerate the extra solution. No red dye is needed. Change the food every three days or it may spoil and harm the birds. Do not use honey.
If bees and hornets hang around the feeder, rub a bit of petroleum jelly around the holes to help deter them, said Edith Thompson, Wild Acres coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
For information about creating a hummingbird garden and other backyard wildlife habitats, contact the Wild Acres program at 410- 260-8570.
Other hummingbird favorites:
Pub Date: 5/17/98