Birdwatching Dot Com



Birding Tips








Jewel Birds

This morning a friend phoned to tell me she'd just seen her first hummingbird of the year. A male Ruby-throat stopped by the feeder she'd just put up by a hanging basket of fuchsias and had a good sweet drink. It's a marvelous day, when the hummingbirds arrive in the Midwest.

Ever since they arrived on the Gulf coast, in early March, they've been probing their way north flower by flower, as spring opened ahead of them. Here in Iowa, as in much of the Midwest, many hummingbirds pass right on through. But if you're ready, you can attract hummingbirds to your garden and hold their loyalty for a while.

Hummingbirds are not afraid of people. It's easy to get one to land on your hand.

Bright blossoms and sweet water are magnets for hummingbirds. The tiny birds' need for nourishment is intense, for they have the highest metabolic rate of any bird, and they consume nearly their weight in nectar every day.

On their long journey north, they are always looking for food. It's said that every square foot of land in North America is investigated by hummingbirds in the course of a year. If you provide the right flowers, hummingbirds will be the inevitable result. Special feeders that hold sugar water will also do the trick, though they require more care.

A crucial element in attracting hummingbirds is to be ready when they arrive. In southern Iowa, Ruby-throats can show up as early as the end of April. Males appear first, females later. I try to have at least one hummingbird feeder out by April 25, though I usually don't see a hummer until the first week of May.

But when that first gorgeous little fellow checks out my garden, I want to be sure he finds something wonderful. Something irresistible. One part granulated white sugar in four parts of clean boiled water. Finding such a rich source of food, a hummingbird is likely to stay for several days before moving on.

In a few weeks, with more hummers still arriving daily, the columbines bloom in my yard, and they provide an added incentive to the tiny birds. Hummingbirds adore columbines.

I suspect that the columbine and the hummingbird helped to create each other, adapting to each other's shape and habits. The blossom's five long red spurs each contain a tiny meal for a hummingbird. Inserting its long bill into a spur of the flower, the hummingbird bumps its head onto the pollen-laden anthers that hang below the petals. When it goes to the next flower, the bird gets another taste of nectar, and the genetic material from one columbine mixes with that of another. Everybody is happy.

I am happy too, when I get to watch this evolutionary drama in action. I used to buy annual bedding plants every spring and laboriously plant them in front of our house, and then water and weed and worry over them. I guess the flowers were hybrids whose power of generation had been bred out of them, because the flowers never came back the following year unless I replanted new ones. Perhaps the nectar had been lost, too. I never saw any hummingbirds among them.

But one year I put in a couple of starts of wild columbine, given to me by an elderly neighbor, who'd been nurturing them for 50 years. The columbines flourished in my garden and have become a permanent feature. They don't need watering or pampering: they are native to Iowa; they belong here and are adapted to our climate. They come back spontaneously every year, renewed by the abundant seeds they produce all by themselves. With a little help from hummingbirds.

I always place a feeder in the columbine patch, so that hummingbirds will discover it easily. Hummingbirds remember where they found satisfaction last year. I've seen them examine an area where flowers bloomed in the past, and I've seen one hover inquiringly exactly in the spot where a feeder hung in a previous season.

Balance a penny on your finger and feel its weight. That is how much a Ruby-throated Hummingbird weighs. But this bird of one tenth ounce has some miles under his belt. Last fall he flew to Central America, where he spent the winter. Then, as the days began to lengthen at winter's end, the hummingbird began to get fat. He gained as much as a twentieth of an ounce, or half again his body weight. He moved to the Yucatan Peninsula, which juts up into the Gulf of Mexico.

One evening, he rose into the sky and flew out over the salt water of the Gulf. All night he flew northward. When morning came he was hundreds of miles from land in any direction, and he kept flying toward North America. Late in the afternoon, he made landfall somewhere on the Gulf coast. All his fat had been used up, and he was hungry as a bear. Compared to a hummingbird who has just flown more than 500 miles nonstop, bears don't know what hungry is. What the taste of the first blossom after that flight must be to him!

The western United States has over a dozen species of hummingbirds, but the Ruby-Throated is the only kind we have in most of the east. It nests primarily in forests, preferably near a stream. In Iowa, most of the hummers go to the forested northeastern part of the state. They usually grace our towns only in migration. However, a female sometimes chooses a garden well-stocked with nectar-producing flowers. She builds a walnut-sized nest of lichens and spider webs.

Two pea-sized eggs hatch into babies that look at first like small wet bees. The mother bird feeds them by putting her long bill down their throats, as if they were sword-swallowers. As the nestlings grow, the spider-web nest walls stretch, so that the nest seems to open like a flower. When the young can fly, the mother shows them good places to eat, including the hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds are not afraid of people. You can watch them up close, and they'll often come over just to take a closer look at you.

If you entice a female to nest in your garden, you may have hummingbirds all summer long. But even if they seem to disappear in summer, hummingbirds will reappear in August and September, during their southbound migration. They're mostly gone from Iowa before the onset of cool weather.

Hummingbirds are with us only for a short while each year. But, like gems, their beauty makes up for their rarity. This is a piercingly lovely bird, with its sparkling iridescent green back and its jeweled throat. When I see one rise up on whirring wings from the heart of a lily blossom and hover before my face, I feel as if I've been greeted by the soul of the garden.

--Diane Cooledge Porter

Copyright © 1997 by Diane Porter. All rights reserved.

Hummingbird Feeder that mounts on your window

For more about hummingbirds see Nancy Newfield's new book, Hummingbird Gardens. It has excellent photographs of all the hummingbirds of North America with notes about each species' natural history. It contains many practical gardening ideas for turning your yard into a hummingbird haven.

Author Nancy Newfield (the Hummingbird Lady) lives on the Gulf Coast where she has been studying hummingbirds for many years. She has made many original contributions to scientific understanding of hummingbirds and their ranges.

Home FAQ Tips Stories Videos Software Optics Bookstore Orders

A new video!

Hummingbirds of North America

Hummingbird video

Three hours of gorgeous hummers.

Showing all 26 kinds of hummingbirds found in North America

by the Advanced Birding Video Series.