Gardens are often a source of solace, a sensory cleansing-of-the-palate that we can turn to for rejuvenation. They also serve an ecological purpose, creating an opportunity for increased biodiversity at a time when our planet needs it the most. With some careful planning and a bit of work, you can contribute to both of these aspects by creating a hummingbird oasis.
Hummingbirds are essential pollinators and helpful pest eliminators, but they’re also a joy to watch. You can easily encourage these cheerful little birds to visit your yard, but it takes a little more than just hanging a feeder. We spoke with Kathryn Schneider, author of Birding the Hudson Valley and a member of the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club, to get more information on how to invite more hummingbirds to our homes.
Why Creating a Hummingbird Oasis is Worth the Effort
Aside from the joy watching them brings, hummingbirds are essential pollinators that help keep our ecosystem thriving. They also feed their young insects that we don’t like having around — ants, aphids, flies, gnats, and even mosquitoes — so their presence always has a net-positive impact. Unfortunately, hummingbird-friendly habitats are dwindling thanks to property development and climate change, which could be having an impact across many of their migration routes.
According to Schneider, the Capital Region is home to only one species: the ruby-throated hummingbird. The males are distinctive, with ruby-red throats, a bright green back and a black chin. The females are more muted, but equally beautiful to observe. They are widely considered to be one of the friendliest hummingbird species; they readily come to sugar water feeders and flower gardens, and aren’t easily startled by the presence of humans.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly all the way to Panama for the winter to find the nectar they need to fuel their little hyperactive bodies. They migrate back north when the weather warms, and typically start showing up in the Capital District when the azaleas and rhododendrons start to bloom, says Schneider.
Hummingbirds are creatures of habit. Once a hummingbird discovers your property, the same individual is likely to return each year at about the same time. So, if you invest the time and energy now, you can enjoy hummingbird visits every spring and summer.
Creating the Ideal Hummingbird Home
You don’t need to have a huge yard to create an oasis worthy of hummingbird visits. Even in the largest cities, hummingbirds occupy parks and sometimes visit window boxes or rooftop gardens, as long as you provide the right attractants. The number of hummingbirds that frequent your yard is closely linked to the abundance of food, water, nesting sites, and perches.
Food: Go Native!
It’s commonly thought that hummingbirds are drawn to the color red. That’s at least partly because the tubular flowers they prefer are often red. In reality, hummingbirds are more partial to native plants than they are to any particular color.
Schneider says that in our area, hummingbirds particularly love red salvia, foxglove, and Monarda (commonly known as bee balm). “I would highly encourage people to plant native plants as hummingbird attractants, because they’re more attracted to those than some flowers that are cultivated like zinnias and petunias, although they like those as well,” she says.
If you plant patches of the same species — three or more plants in one area — you can provide larger quantities of nectar and increase the odds of a hummingbird finding you. This can be done in your yard, and it works really well as the basis for a container garden, too. It’s also a good idea to select plants that bloom at different times of the year to provide nectar throughout the hummingbird season.
Hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water are great for hummingbirds, but you need to be careful. “The problem with feeders is that people don’t change them often enough. If you don’t change the sugar water frequently — every few days, and more often in hot weather — it tends to grow fungus inside, which can really harm the birds,” says Schneider. Her advice is to use the correct dilution of four parts water to one part sugar, and omit red food coloring as it really isn’t necessary.
Hummingbirds need a source of water in their ideal habitat. Providing a birdbath is helpful, and hummingbirds particularly love one with a fountain or water that trickles to bathe in. Garden misters are equally attractive, and it can be a joy to watch the birds preen under the gentle spray.
“If you’re going to put a feeder out, try to have a perch nearby,” Schneider says. Hummingbirds like to be able to survey the area for predators before they come down to feed, so a well-situated perch is essential. If your yard doesn’t include trees or shrubs that can readily serve this purpose, try to position a perch within 10 to 20 feet of the feeder or plants. By keeping the perch close to the house you can deter larger predators, and it’s equally important that the perch be high out of reach of any curious house cats.
You can encourage hummingbird nest-building by growing a diversity of leafy trees and large shrubs that provide shelter at varying heights. Consider growing plants that provide soft fibers for nesting material, such as alder, witch hazel, pussy willow, or maple trees. If you have pets that shed, leave some of their fur collected during brushings out in a bush or tree where hummingbirds can safely find it.
If you can find some way to incorporate each of these tips, you’ll be sure to have plenty of hummingbirds to watch all season long. Schneider encourages everyone to start simple, and plant native. “Foxglove is beautiful, and the hummingbirds love it!” she says. “I just have a planter on my porch, and I can sit there and just watch them coming to it, and I don’t have to do anything. It’s wonderful!”
Main photo: iStockphoto.com/freebilly.