Playing in the dirt: the Hummers are back! Attract hummingbirds to your garden

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By Lorraine Tuck, Orange County Volunteer Master Gardener

If you treat hummingbirds well, they will come back.

Every spring, I anticipate the return of the hummers. I can’t wait to hear the literal buzz in the air and see a swoosh, beak first, then a loud flapping of wings as the first hummer arrives. Once you have a hummingbird, you will have more. It is a promise.

Hummingbird visiting spring flowering columbine. Splashes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Our house is on the edge of the woods. We have a raised deck with a few dead limbs nearby for perches. I line the deck and dead limbs with red hummingbird feeders that I hang each spring when the azaleas bloom.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the only species of hummingbird that breeds in eastern North America, arrive in North Carolina in March or April, hungry after a long flight from Mexico or Central America. They will visit your feeders throughout the spring and summer and well into the fall; most leave in mid-October.

Proper care of hummers means dedication to feeding them from mold-free feeders and providing plants that produce natural nectar. You will be rewarded when others return to your garden each year.

The red parts of a hummingbird feeder attract birds. Do not add red food coloring to sugar water. Bill Gracey, CC BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Feed the hummingbirds

Start a feeder using a recipe of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar. This means that for every 1 cup of water, you must have 1/4 cup of sugar; 2 cups of water requires 1/2 cup of sugar, etc. Measure the sugar into a large heatproof measuring container, then pour boiling water over the top of the sugar. Stir the sugar water briskly until the sugar is dissolved. Then add measured cold water and continue stirring. This way, you won’t have to wait as long for the hummingbird’s sugar-water mixture to cool before pouring it into the feeder.

DO NOT ADD RED DYE! It is useless and does nothing to encourage hummers to your feeders. It is also easier to monitor the cleanliness of your sugar water if the water is clear.

As the number of hummingbirds feeding around my house increases, I add more feeders. However, I don’t want the sugar water to sit in the feeder for more than two or three days. Sugar water can ferment in just a few days, especially in hot summers, causing mold and bacteria to grow. Mold can kill hummers. It is crucial to maintain your feeders well and to avoid mold and bacteria.

Dishwasher safe feeders can be washed in the dishwasher, but they must go through the drying cycle to be sanitized. If washing by hand, scrub all parts with dish soap and rinse. To remove dark spots of mold from the feeder, scrub it with a bottle brush or add sand or rice grains and water and shake the feeder. To sanitize a hand-washed feeder, immerse it in a bleach solution of 1 cup household bleach to 9 cups water for at least three minutes. Rinse the feeder well and air dry. You can store and reuse the bleach solution for about three weeks.

Once a feeder is out and you’ve attracted a hummer, hang a second feeder to attract more birds. Hummers are very territorial and do not like to share feeding points. If there are two feeders, they will have more space to feed and it won’t take long for several hummers to visit. There are at least 50 hummers at my six feeders every year.

Important feeding hours

Hummingbird eggs usually hatch around the end of July. Mother birds need plenty of sugar water to keep up with their hungry babies. At this point I keep a gallon of food in the fridge to prevent mold and have it ready to fill the feeders. With six feeders, I rotate them every other day to prevent mold. I keep four feeders full (two 2-cup feeders and two 4-cup feeders) while I clean two.

August is also an important time in the life of a hummingbird. they must feed often to gain weight for migration. Feeders should be constantly monitored for mold and filled with new sugar water.

You can provide drinking and bathing water for hummingbirds by turning on a sprinkler or mister at the same time each day, running a small amount of water, or filling a small, very shallow, rough-surfaced dish such as a clay saucer.

In the fall, I reduce the number of feeders (I only have one feeder in place from mid-September). One year I kept a list of dates I thought were my last sight of a hummer at my feeders. The deadline was October 15. As long as you keep the feeders clean, you can keep them year round.

Feeders

I use a charger brand with no yellow around the power ports. Yellow can attract bugs, and that seems to be true in my experience. I get an occasional bug but no bug infestation other than ants. If ants are a particular problem for you, some feeders have a molded in or hooked ditch to fill with water to capture ants and other insects. You can also buy staves to attach to feeders. Keep in mind, however, that some insects that might get trapped in flukes are beneficial to your garden.

Although I was given beautifully designed feeders, they don’t seem to appeal to hummers. The rubber stoppers at the mouth may not allow easy access to the sugar water. I had the best experience with a plastic feeder with a red base and a clear cylinder to hold the sugar water. There are similar styles made by several manufacturers that can be found online and at bird specialty stores, hardware stores, and garden centers.

Hummers like to perch on branches of shrubs or trees. Susan Young, Flickr, Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Where to place your feeders

Don’t worry too much about the height of the feeder as hummingbirds are used to hovering low in front of flowers or higher in tree branches. Hummers like to perch on branches of shrubs or trees. Placing the feeder in a shady area will help keep the sugar water cooler longer and may help discourage ants and other insects from feeding. Make sure your feeders are in a place where you can easily watch the hummers and keep an eye out for the need to refill or clean the feeders.

Hummingbird on bee balm. Beau Considine, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Hummingbird Plants

Natural sources of nectar will attract hummingbirds and other pollinators and add beauty to your garden. Hummers are particularly attracted to plants with red, tubular flowers such as salvia, cannas, and other reddish conical plants.

Select a variety of colorful flowers and shrubs with different bloom times throughout spring, summer and fall to provide a constant natural food source. By placing hummingbird-attracting plants in different areas of your garden, you can help counter their territorial nature when feeding. Also, avoid using chemicals on your flowering plants.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on an obedient plant. US Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region, Public Domain Mark 1.0.

There are a number of flowering plants native to the southeast that attract hummingbirds, as well as non-native plants.

Flowers that attract hummingbirds and are native to the southeast include:

  • allium (Allium cernuum, Allium cuthbertii)
  • Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)
  • Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
  • Bee Balm (Monarda Didyma) (also called wild bergamot)
  • Orange Jewelery (Impatiens capensis)
  • Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)

Hummingbird on cardinal flower. US Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region, Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Native flowering vines and shrubs that attract hummingbirds include:

  • Trumpet Vine (Trumpet Creeper) (Campsis radicans)
  • VSoral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
  • Native azaleas (Rhododendron species).

Non-native plants that attract hummers include:

  • Zinnias (Zinnia)
  • Dahlias (Dahlia)
  • lantane (Lantana Camera)
  • Flowering quince (like Chaenomeles speciosa),
  • Weigela (Weigela Florida).

Hummingbird on zinnias. Steve Marque, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Learn more about the hummingbird attraction

  • Hummingbirds are here!by Rhonda Gaster, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County.
  • The birds are back in town – Hummingbirds, that is…North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural ScienceInformation about hummingbirds specific to North Carolina, vagrant hummingbird species, and the Museum Banding Project.
  • For birds, butterflies and hummingbirds: creating inviting habitats, Virginia Cooperative Extension. Features a photographic array of flowers attracting hummingbirds.
  • Cornell Ornithology Lab. Lots of information on Ruby-throated Hummingbirds including identification tips, habitat requirements, sounds/calls, life history and more!

Consult us!

Do you have a question about plants or the garden? Email the Orange County Master Gardener Volunteers at [email protected] or call 919-245-2061.

Subscribe to The Garden Buzzthe monthly master gardener of orange county newsletter, for news, events and local gardening tips. And visit our website, The orange gardener.

Save this date: Orange County Master Gardener volunteers will hold plant festivala plant sale and party, October 8, 2022, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Bonnie B. Davis Environmental and Agricultural Center1020 US 70 W, Hillsborough, North Carolina 27278.


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