Betsy S. Franz
Photos always free for use by nature writers, science teachers, etc. if attribution provided.
Hummingbirds are favorites in the garden for many reasons other than their colorful, almost iridescent hues. What other creature can amaze us with feats such as flying backwards, upside down or hovering in mid-air? They are the smallest bird in the world and yet eat more food than any other bird species (up to half their body weight per day). They have the fastest wingbeat of any bird (up to 90 beats per second) and the highest metabolic rate of any known animal. Their heart beats up to 1260 beats per minute during the day and slows to 50 beats per minute during the night. Normal flight speed for a hummingbird is 25 to 30 mph, but hummers can dive at speeds of up to 60 mph. Hummingbirds can migrate hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles each year, following the blooming periods of their favorite plants.
Although there are more than 338 known species of hummingbirds in the Americas, only about sixteen of those are found in the United States.
Hummingbirds use enormous energy because of their high metabolism and fast flight. They eat spiders and small insects, but are most often seen dining on flowers and nectar feeders.
Hummingbirds are attracted to plants by color, not by scent. They are said to be most drawn to tubular flowers that are either large or showy or in drooping clusters of red, orange and pink. Hummingbirds are territorial, so hummingbird plants and feeders should be spaced in separate groupings around your yard and at varying heights, starting at about 18″ above the ground. Since hummingbirds feed in flight, they need plenty of room around the flowers to accommodate their movements. They are also thought to prefer curved, narrow flowerbeds that can be reached from all sides of the plants.
As with butterfly gardening, don’t use pesticides on your plants. They can be deadly to hummingbirds if sprayed directly onto your flowers or on the insects that hummingbirds sometimes dine on.
Nectar feeders can be used as a supplemental food source for hummingbirds. A simple nectar can be made by combining 1 part granulated sugar to four parts water in a saucepan and boiling for two minutes. Let the mixture cool completely before filling feeders. You can refrigerate excess nectar for up to one week. Never use honey or artificial sweeteners, as these are unhealthy for hummingbirds. Be sure and replace the mixture frequently because bacterial growth in the nectar solution is potentially fatal to the hummingbirds. Specialized bee guards and ant motes can be purchased to help with unwanted visitors that may deter hummingbird visitors.
Trees and shrubs are used for nesting spots and look-out sites. Male hummingbirds use tall trees as perches to keep an eye on their favorite feeding sources while the females use feathers, spider webs and lichens to form their tiny one-inch nests within the protective branches.
Despite their quick speed, hummingbirds can fall victim to larger birds, cats and even the well-camouflaged praying mantis. Other dangers include collisions with window glass and screens.
Written by Betsy S. Franz