Fireworks Every Day in the Garden

Every two and a half weeks I stand in line at Costco along with other bulk shoppers, their carts full of king-size supplies of food and my cart containing only two items….two king-size bags of sugar, 50 lbs. of sugar to be exact, just enough to fill 7 hummingbird feeders with nectar for about 18 days.  There is a formula to estimate how many hummers reside in an area by the amount of nectar they consume but we aren’t interested in knowing.  We only know we have oodles of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that are drawn here year after year by an abundance of food, water, and nesting sites. Suburban and rural gardens are ideal hummingbird habitats with trees, shrubs, open areas of grass or meadows, water and flowers.  With the addition of the right flowers, most gardens will attract these miniature thespians to entertain you in the garden.

leucistic Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in Ware Neck VAThese “glittering garments of the rainbow,” as John James Audubon called them, are the most colorful and prolific bloomers in our gardens from early spring until late fall. We recognize the same individuals as they arrive each spring, not only by their familiarity with us, but by unusual markings on some of them.  Several of our hummers are leucistic, a condition of reduced pigmentation in the feathers.  As new generations are born each spring to these birds, it is interesting to see the white leucistic variations on the heads of the offspring.

We are entertained by the raging territorial battles to protect their nectar source. They battle each other, bees, birds, the dogs and people.  As the ‘king’ of one feeder chases an intruder, several others slip in to have a sip from his nectar cache. These jewel-colored birds with their explosive and ferocious territorial dances at speeds of up to 60 mph provide us with 4th of July fireworks every day of the summer.

Did you know?

  • The Ruby-Throated is the only hummer to breed east of the Mississippi yet during migration you can see other varieties passing through.
  • Hummingbirds are great pollinators, often better than bees because they feed continuously from dawn to dusk.
  • Hummingbirds do eat insects: gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, aphids, etc.  In the early spring they will look for insects trapped in sap from woodpecker holes.
  • Females do all the nest building, often attaching it with spider silk and pine resin, and camouflaging it with lichens and fungus.  The nest is walnut-sized and the 2 eggs are pea-sized.  The male continues to court other females after mating.
  • Predators include spiders, preying mantis, dragonflies and other birds. I have witnessed a bullfrog in our pond jump a foot straight up to within 1/4-inch of a hummer at a pickerel weed bloom. We have rescued them from spider webs and nursed them from collisions with each other.
  • At night, due to their small size and lack of insulation, hummers enter a state of torpor, a hibernation-like condition where the breathing and heart rate slow dramatically.

Nectar recipe:  1 part white granulated sugar to 4 parts water.  According to Bill Williams of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, it is not necessary to boil the solution, just dissolve the sugar. Male Ruby-Throated HummingbirdThe nectar solution can be stored in the refrigerator for two weeks. Do not use the commercial red dye solution.  Keep the feeder very clean to avoid black mold that can be harmful to the birds.

Bill Williams also states that the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has recently been documented wintering over in two Tidewater locations.  Is this a new trend? It very well could be he says.

Plants to attract:  hibiscus, flowering quince, currants, weigela, azalea, mimosa, and buddleia.   Flowers to attract: morning glory, columbine, trumpet vine, fuschia, bee balm, bleeding heart, honeysuckle, virginia creeper, and salvia.  Remember, they are attracted to the color red.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester