Flying Jewels

May 24, 2016

Hummingbirds are enchanting. Of all the creatures that visit our gardens, these colorful “flying jewels” seem to defy gravity as they zip back and forth to lap nectar from the plants.

Photo by John McNamara, taken at our ChesLen Preserve

Photo by John McNamara, taken at our ChesLen Preserve

While there are more than 300 types of hummingbirds, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is the only one that breeds in eastern North America. Both male and female have a metallic green back and crown with whitish belly and black wings. The male has a brilliant red throat patch, from which the species derives its name. An adult measures about three inches long and weighs only a tenth of an ounce—about the weight of a penny.

Their diminutive size and iridescent beauty are only part of their appeal. Even more amazing is their movement! A hummingbird’s wings can rotate 180 degrees to allow the bird to hover and even fly backwards. Those tiny wings beat about 50 to 70 times per second—just a blur of movement to the naked eye.

A hummingbird’s brain is larger, by proportion, than any other bird. These winged wonders may visit up to 1,000 flowers a day; their foraging efficiency is greatly improved by an accurate memory of which plants offer the most nectar and how recently each was visited. Hummingbirds also remember—year to year—the location of each and every nectar feeder. They can even learn which household members refill their feeders!

Hummingbirds can be attracted to your yard with a combination of feeders and nectar-producing plants. So put out a feeder or two, put a few more native plants in your garden, and enjoy the show.

  • Fill your feeders with a solution of one part table sugar dissolved in four parts boiling water (cool before filling). Replace the solution weekly (more often in hot weather) and keep the feeder clean using dish soap or vinegar and rinsing thoroughly.
  • While the plastic part of the feeder apparatus should be red (an attractive color to hummingbirds), do not add dye to the sugar-water content.
  • Place the feeders in prominent, shady locations in the garden where you’ll be able to watch the birds as they use them.
  • Hummingbirds show a preference for red and orange tubular flowers that they probe for nectar with their long beaks and extendable tongues.
  • To make your yard more tempting, plant flowers in groups rather than as individual specimens and choose a broad spectrum of species (see list below) to ensure a full season of blooms.

Native Plants that Attract Hummingbirds

Common NameLatin NameSeason of Bloom
Beardtongue*Penstemon digitalismid to late
Bee-balm*Monarda didymaearly to mid
Blazing-star*Liatris spicatamid to late
Blue Vervain*Verbena hastatamid to late
Butterfly-weed*Asclepias tuberosa mid
Canada LilyLilium canadensemid
Cardinal-flower*Lobelia cardinalislate
Columbine*Aquilegia canadensisearly to mid
Common Milkweed*Asclepias syriacaearly to mid
Great Blue Lobelia*Lobelia siphilitica late
Indian PaintbrushCastilleja coccineamid
Swamp Milkweed*Asclepias incarnatamid
Trumpet honeysuckle*Lonicera sempervirensmid
Wild Bleeding-heart*Dicentra eximiamid to late

* Deer resistant plant