We will start with some hummingbird facts. The hummingbird is the smallest species of bird in the world! They are cable of hovering, flying backwards, and are the only avian species that can fly upside down and backwards. Most people think there are several different types of hummingbirds in Kentucky but actually there is only one, the Rubythroat that lives east of the Mississippi river. The male rubythroat is the one with the large red spot on its neck and breast. The male rubythroat weighs only 3.03 grams or as much as 2.5 paperclips!
Hummingbirds routinely cruise at 27 miles per hour but can reach up to 60 miles an hour while mating. The hummingbirds wings beat 53 times per second, they have little or no song, a female rubythroat can eat 2000 insects per day, they have to eat 100% of their body weight in nectar per day just to survive, they cannot smell, they find food by site, feed every 5 minutes to one hour based on food sources, and often migrates over 500 miles in a single day!
Rubythroats generally arrive in Kentucky by mid-April. Hummingbird’s favorite foods include nectar from all kinds of flowers and insects. Their favorite native flowers include native iris, pinks, columbine, and phlox. Mating usually takes place in May with young arriving in June; females build the nests and rear the young.
By late July migration southwards begins starting from the north downward usually they don’t leave Kentucky until late September. Hummingbirds over winter in Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. Male hummingbirds generally only live 2.5 years while females live 3.5 years. Over 50% of all young will not survive until adulthood.
Attracting hummingbirds is relatively easy as long as you feed them and have flowers near by. Feeders should be set out by mid-April to attract the first comers. You may need more than one feeder because each male will defend a feeder. Place feeders out-of-sight from each other to attract more hummingbirds. Hummingbird feeders don’t have to be elaborate however red is their favorite color.
When feeding hummingbirds, store purchased nectar mixes are fine however not needed, you can make your own. A basic recipe consists of 4 parts water, one part sugar (don’t mix it any stronger), boil the water and sugar for 2 minutes to kill any harmful bacteria. Cool the solution in the refrigerator and fill your feeders. Don’t add any dyes or coloring to your feed it’s not needed and some of them can actually harm the birds.
With all of the sugar water out in the elements your feeders will need to be cleaned regularly, weekly or bi-weekly. Wash it with a mild soap, rinse with bleach, and rinse thoroughly with water. Insects can become a problem but don’t ever spray insecticides near feeders. If you follow the recommended mixing rates bees may not like it, if they do, mix a double strength amount in another feeder and the bees are likely to go to that feeder and leave the one for the birds alone. For ants just rub petroleum jelly on the wire hanger and the ants can’t get to the feeder.
Hummingbirds need fresh water so feel baths up daily. They really like fresh nectar so plant many types of flowers; they also need trees and shrubs to nest and rest in. An open sunny area for flying is also preferred.
If you want to plant flowers for attracting hummingbirds several plant families are the best such as: the mint family which includes salvia, bee balm, and hyssop, the honey suckle family wild or tame with the native trumpet honeysuckle as a favorite, the columbines wild or tame, the bignonia family which includes trumpet creeper and cross vine, the penstemons, the lobelias which includes the native cardinal flower as well as cultivated species, the mallow family which includes hollyhock, hardy hibiscus, and rose of Sharon, the morning glory family, and woody species such as buckeye, clethra, Carolina Silverbell, native and cultivated azaleas and rhododendrons, and weigela. Other particular plants that hummingbirds prefer are nicotiana (flowering tobacco), zinnia, Mexican sunflower, snapdragon, obedient plant, foxglove, cleome, and canna.
If you don’t have some of the hummingbirds favorite plants then now is a good time to plan the gardens. You will get a multitude of benefits such as beauty, butterflies, and most of all the summer long excitement of hummingbirds in your garden!
Submitted by Dennis Morgeson, Agent for Horticulture, Washington County Cooperative Extension Service