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Master Gardeners: Lets Talk Hummingbirds

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There is no bird like the hummingbird. Lavishly colored, they are the smallest birds in the world, some weighing little more than a dime. Hummers are found only in the Western Hemisphere and, lucky for us, many are right here in the Mother Lode.

Last summer I spotted countless Anna´s hummers plus a record-breaking four other hummingbird species in my garden. Jeanne Bodiford of the Central Sierra Audubon Society agrees that last year was an extraordinary year with more hummers and unusual species, perhaps due to habitat loss in other regions.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE BIRD KIND. When a male hummingbird finds a good nectar source, he aggressively defends it from all other hummers, chittering angrily and flying toward the intruder at top speed. While courting, he performs mind-boggling skydives with a loud pop or whistle at the bottom, or the dizzying “pendulum dance,” swinging back and forth, wings abuzz, in front of his ladylove. The female tends the nest and feeds baby birds unaided.

THE ENDLESS QUEST. Hummers must have food—lots of food—to sustain their rapid metabolism and heart rate of up to over 1000 beats a minute. Hummers eat often, perhaps every 10 minutes or so, and must tank up at the end of the day to prepare for the long night. They scarf down numerous tiny insects for protein and sip flower nectar for energy.

FEEDERS. You can supplement flowers with sugar-water feeders: 1) Prepare the sugar solution with ¼ cup white sugar to one cup boiling water; no food coloring is needed. Store extra solution in the refrigerator. 2) To assure its freshness, replace sugar mixture in the feeder every three days or so, more often in warm weather. 3) Replenish feeders when empty; over-wintering hummers need nectar too. If you go away, recruit someone to care for the feeder(s) in your absence. 4) Choose feeders that are easily cleaned. Wash often. To remove every speck of mold, Bodiford soaks her feeders in a mixture of half vinegar and half water. For extra cleansing, add some dry rice with water; shake well; rinse.

PLANT AND THEY WILL COME. To set a lavish hummingbird buffet, grow real flowers; no scrubbing required. Try to provide a variety of blossoms over a long period of time for both resident and migratory birds. When foraging, hummers glean only a sip of nectar from each bloom and must visit many blossoms. Hummers are opportunists notes Bodiford. She has even seen them eat the sweet honeydew produced by aphids. They will check any flower in search of nectar and insects, pollinating blossoms along the way.

Unfortunately, many flowers provide little or no nectar, especially newer hybrids. Instead, nectar flowers are often native to California, or to Australia where they are pollinated by moths. Others are “exotics” from yet other lands.

Common nectar plants include butterfly bush, bottlebrush, trumpet vine, silk tree, Eucalyptus, red-hot poker, honeysuckle, bee balm, Penstemon, Weigela, foxglove, and coral-bells. Hummers also enjoy spider flowers, larkspur, and some morning glories, hollyhocks, and Impatiens.

California natives that are early bloomers and attract hummingbirds include manzanita, wild currents and gooseberries (Ribes), followed by buckeye and monkey flowers (Mimulus). California fuchsia (Zauchneria) and autumn sage (Salvia gregii) are native fall bloomers. Numerous other sages (Salvias), both native and exotic, entice hummers; many also resist deer. Look for Cleveland´s (S. clevlandii), hummingbird (S. spathacea), and anise-scented (S. guaranitica).

My all-time favorite hummingbird plant is Verbena bonariensis–long blooming, lavender-flowered, and an airy 5 ft. tall. Its nectar, seeds, and small insects draw not only hummers, but butterflies and small songbirds as well. My latest find is the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), an easily grown shrub with loads of blue summer flowers.

Want to limit your gardening? Consider adding just one hummingbird plant each year. If you and perhaps a neighbor or two do so, in time you too will serve a genuine hummingbird buffet!

For more about hummingbirds and their flowers, try Ortho´s soft cover book, All About Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies, $11.95 at local garden centers.

See you in the garden.

Vera Strader is a Master Gardener who collects both native and exotic hummingbird plants. Her Sonora garden is certified as a National Wildlife Habitat site.