Hummingbirds in the Garden

Gardeners around the world grow colorful flowers and plants to attract birds to their landscapes. But it is only in the Americas where hummingbirds grace gardens with their graceful flitting and flying. Smaller than a ping pong ball and scarcely heavier, hummingbirds enthrall lucky observers with their hovering and sideways and backward flight as they gambol among the nectar-filled flowers.

Our hummingbirds have been back for a few weeks. They’re migratory and spend their winters in the warm regions of Mexico and Central America. Increasingly, some species have taken to the U.S. Southwest and are choosing to vacation there while cold and snow pummel the rest of the continent. With the arrival of warm weather, they again venture north to breed in more temperate regions. Colorado is one of the many places where hummingbirds frolic in the summer.

Not all hummingbirds migrate, but the ones that do are welcome in my garden. This year my wife was more enthusiastic than I about preparing the feeders. While I was focused on getting the new garden beds ready for planting, she was looking forward to being entertained by the tiny birds.

We removed the feeders from storage, cleaned them up, and hung them near the garden, filled with sugar water. One part sugar to four parts water is the simple formula. They don’t need fancy red food coloring, and that is actually discouraged. A splash of red or yellow on the feeder helps attract them, but once they realize there is a free, nutritious meal, they’ll be back regardless of the color.

Our hummingbird feeders

Hummingbirds are very smart and are supposed to have amazing memories. They have an average lifespan of five years but can live to about ten. We have no doubt that the birds in the garden now are the same ones from last year. They know a good thing.

Last year I identified the birds we see most often as Rufous hummingbirds. That may be an easy guess because Rufous hummingbirds are the most widely distributed of the hummingbirds in North America. A primary reason I decided on that identification was because of the unique sound our birds make as they patrol the garden and attack interlopers. There is a beautiful trilling sound generated by their feathers as they fly through the air. I’ve seen it described as a “metallic whining” and that is mostly accurate, but it doesn’t adequately describe the vibrant, quavering pitch.

Hummingbirds are extremely difficult to see in flight, but with the distinctive melody of their wings betraying their position, we’re able to watch as they climb and dive and quickly stop on a branch or line.

The aerial dogfights as a male protects his territory are fascinating. Last summer I was captivated by three males as they soared through simultaneous combat, with high-speed dives and precision mid-air passes. I didn’t see any collisions and couldn’t tell if there was contact, but after about 15 minutes one bird sat victorious on the power line above the fence. The other two were banished. Whether he was the proud defender or a cocky invader, it was his earned privilege to oversee the land.

The feeders are hanging from a pine tree to reward such bravado and to encourage the birds to stay while we wait for the flowers to bloom. I have honeysuckle and penstemon planted nearby so they can slake their endless thirst of nectar, but the birds return earlier than the flowers. When the plants do burst with their reds and purples, the birds will forgo the tree feeders for the actual blossoms.

Males and females will share in the floral color, but usually at different times. If a female or small male are feeding when the ruler of the territory arrives, they quickly adjourn to the sidelines. It’s not unusual for three or four birds to wait perched on the fence while the dominant male flits confidently from flower to flower. If they should perch too close, he’ll abandon his meal to chase them away, returning soon after.

As the season progresses, they’ll spend more time at the feeder and at the blossoms. For now we only catch glimpses of them, for a handful of seconds, as they feed. Too quick for the camera or closer observation by us. By the end of the season they’ll flirt with us as we sit in the garden or on the patio.

I enjoy many aspects of gardening and my garden. Hummingbirds make the “best of” list, but they aren’t present all year (see my blog “A Farewell to Wings”). If you don’t have a hummingbird feeder or flowers planted to attract them, I encourage that you start with either. For sheer enjoyment they’re an easy and simple addition to any American garden.


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