Saturday, July 25, 2009

Summertime is Hummertime

The gardens around the the cottage and museum were planted for a strong summer bloom. We didn't specifically intend to do it that way, but that's how it seems to have worked out. One of our greatest pleasures is watching the bees and butterflies bouncing from flower to flower in the early morning and afternoon sun. It's interesting for us to watch how each of the bees, butterflies, and other insects clamber over the blooms to consume nectar and/or collect pollen. And one of the greatest thrills in the summer garden are the hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are some of the smallest birds in the world. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird, our only species common in the eastern-half of the U.S., weighs in at a mere 0.1-0.2 ounces. It would take 2-3 hummingbirds to weigh the same as a Black-capped Chickadee! Though small in size, they appear to be a bundle of energy as the zip through the flower garden sipping nectar from various species of flowers.

Nectar is a supplement to their diet of insects. Many people falsely believe hummers rely solely on their flowers or nectar feeders for food. The nectar is used as a quick energy boost to keep the metabolism cranking along at near-light speed. A number of small insects and spiders are comsumed by the adults each day throughout the summer and these protein-rich insects are also fed to nestlings to help them develop fast and strong.

A pesticide-free garden is the best means of attracting hummingbirds to your home. Plenty of nectar-producing flowers and a nectar feeder will provide plenty of the sugar needed to boost their energy throughout the day. Avoiding pesticide use will also ensure plenty of insect food for the hummers around your garden as well. Like all birds, hummingbirds set up territories based on available food supplies. If you garden provide much of what they need, they're sure to stick around.

It is crucial that hummingbirds have a consistent supply of food due the high energy demands of their flight. With wings beating anywhere from 50 to 80 times per SECOND, they must consistently refuel throughout the day. The amazing number of wingbeats per second allow hummingbirds to fly in nearly any direction, in addition to hovering in place. Looking at the picture below, you can see the camera captured a portion of the hummingbird's amazing wingbeats. Looking carefully at the bird's left wing, the blur shows a tinge of the figure-8 motion that allows them to hover in place. This is similar to how a swimmer would tread water without the use of their legs. Both of the hummers photographed are females. Males have a bright, ruby red throat patch as their name implies.
Providing nectar and nectar-rich plants is a surefire way of attracting these feathered jewels to your yard. A simple hummingbird feeder costs less than twenty dollars and is even cheaper to fill. A homemade nectar solution can be made combining 1 part sugar to 4 parts water (ex. 1/4 cup of sugar mixed into 1 cup of water). Avoid buying commercial sugar solutions that contain red dye. This dye is unneccessary to attract hummingbirds and is potentially harmful in the great quantities that a single hummingbird may consume (think about how your body might react to drinking equivalent amounts of juice with red dye in it). Wash and refill your nectar feeders every couple of days in hot weather to avoid mold growth inside the feeder.

A few of our hummingbird's favorite flowers are pictured below. You'll notice the color trend, though hummers are attracted to all nectar-producing flowers regardless of color. Flowers with a tube shape are particularly appealing as well. Many great options are available at local nurseries in both annual and perenial varieties.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

Trumpet Creeper Vine (Campsis radicans)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)


-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

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