Not everyone on Earth gets to enjoy these beautifully entertaining, bug-eating buzzers, but we can, by offering sheltered nesting spots, moving water and nectar-rich blooms.
IF YOU DON’T have hummingbirds in your garden, you’re missing out on a truly fun, and especially opportune, feature of gardening: Hummingbirds are found only in the Western Hemisphere from Chile to Alaska, and don’t exist on any other continent. (The Mayans believed hummingbirds were created from the colorful scraps left over when the gods made all the other birds.)
Besides their beauty, hummingbirds also are incredible fliers. Capable of flapping their wings close to 80 times per second, they’re the only birds that can remain stationary in the air, and can even fly backward and upside-down.
Anna’s and Rufous are the two hummingbirds most often seen in the Puget Sound region. Anna’s are the bigger of the two, and the most prevalent here. They’re bright green, and the head and gorget (throat feathers) of the male are iridescent red when seen in sunshine, while the female has a small red patch on her throat. Anna’s often perform an incredible mating ritual: From a dead stop in midair, the male suddenly will take off, flying full-speed, straight up, to well over 100 feet in the air. Then he locks his wings into his sides and goes into a death-defying dive. Just before he splats like a ripe tomato on the patio, he pulls up and misses the cement by a fraction of an inch. What us guys have to do for love! Anna’s rarely migrate, so with a little luck, there’s a good chance you’ll get to watch them perform their antics year-round.
Rufous are the smallest hummingbirds in North America. The males are copper-orange, and in sunshine their gorgets glow brilliant orange-red. The female is mostly green with a touch of orange on her sides, and she has a small iridescent orange spot on her throat. Every spring and fall, Rufous hummingbirds migrate well over 2,000 miles to and from Mexico, flying up to 500 miles per day. They might be small, but Rufous are famous for being among the feistiest of all hummingbirds. These little bullies spend most of their day relentlessly chasing away all the other hummingbirds that dare go near the flowers or feeders in their territories.
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Hummingbirds have the biggest brain per size of any kind of bird, and they have good memories. They remember where they came from, and as long as you provide what they need, even if they migrate for the winter, they almost always return to your garden the following spring. Hummingbirds prefer a sunny, open garden surrounded by a variety of trees and shrubs to provide nesting sites protected from direct sun and rain. Their nests are the size of half a walnut, and are made of plant down, lichen and moss, all weaved together with spider web. They’re usually located on horizontal branches in deciduous trees or shrubs, 6 to 20 feet off the ground, but sometimes, you’ll find them under an overhead on the side of a garage or garden shed.
Hummingbirds rarely visit bird baths. They prefer moving water and love drinking and showering in fountains where the water drips down through the air from one level to another. In my garden, Rufous hummingbirds frequent one of my fountains with an old man’s face that spits water down to a basin 3 feet below. The hummingbirds begin drinking where the water comes out of the old man’s mouth, and ride it all the way down to the basin, drinking as they go.
Although hanging feeders attract hummingbirds, they’re more likely to make your garden their home if you also provide a wide variety of plants with nectar-rich blooms. To maintain their incredibly fast metabolism, hummingbirds need to eat their body weight every day, and to do it, they usually visit more than 1,000 nectar-rich flowers on a daily basis. Quality nurseries offer special sections filled with hummingbird favorites such as honeysuckle, salvia, hyssop, hardy fuchsia, evergreen Penstemon, bee balm and many others.
Finally, there’s one more reason to attract hummingbirds to your garden: They help control aphids and other insect pests. The mothers feed their young almost exclusively insects because they are richer in protein than nectar. If you see a hummingbird hovering in front of a spider web, get ready for a fun show. If a bug gets caught in the web, the hummer will swoop in and grab it before the spider can do anything about it. If the spider gets huffy about it, it’ll get fed to the kids as well!