University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer Article

KEEP YOUR HUMMINGBIRDS HAPPY AND HEALTHY
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

Having ruby-throated hummingbirds around the garden in summer is a real treat. They don't just come to gardens on their own and stay around, however, without the proper habitat and certain needs being met.  Knowing what these needs are can help you have hummingbirds throughout the summer and help prevent one of their biggest threats--loss of summer habitat due to development.

Select plants that are attractive to hummingbirds. These are ones with tubular, odorless, nodding, and brightly colored flowers.  Many of such flowers are ornitholphilous, which means they have evolved to be pollinated by birds (such as hummingbirds) rather than by insects. The tubular flower is adapted to the long hummingbird beak, which gets pollen on it and transfers it to other flowers.

Hummingbirds are attracted by sight, not smell or fragrance, as are insect pollinators. This way they don't have to compete for the same flowers. Nodding flowers also are harder for insects to pollinate compared to the hovering hummingbirds. Being attracted by sight, hummingbirds see the bright flowers first. The color red often means food to them, but color really doesn't matter as long as the flowers have nectar they can reach.

Some of the best perennials and biennials to attract hummingbirds include hollyhock, columbine, delphinium, foxglove, daylily, coral bells, hosta, blazing star, bee balm, and garden phlox. Some good annuals include flowering tobacco, scarlet runner bean, salvia, and even the single petunia. Whether annual or perennial, avoid double flowers, as they are difficult for hummingbirds and insects alike to pollinate. Choose a selection to provide color through the season with a succession of flowering times.

Plant large clumps or drifts of flowers as you might see in nature, but keep them spaced far enough apart so the hummingbirds can maneuver among the stems and plants. You might consider planting a wildflower bed or encouraging wildflowers already there or nearby.

Hanging baskets are excellent as they provide color and flowers through the season. Being near homes they also afford closer viewing of hummingbirds. Good choices for these might be fuchsia, trailing petunias, or nasturtium.

Providing flowers such as these is the best food for hummingbirds instead of nectar feeders. The feeders can supplement a range of flowers but should not be used exclusively. They don't provide a balanced diet as does flower nectar. If not cleaned every two or three days, the feeder food ferments. Ingested, this fermented nectar enlarges their livers and can kill them. Mold and bacteria also can grow in such feeders if not cleaned, also harming them.

Then there is the social aspect. Since hummingbirds are quite territorial and aggressive, competition at such feeders can be quite extreme and stressful. Keep such feeders out of reach of local cats as well.

Don't use honey or artificial sweeteners in feeder nectar, nor red food color, all of which can cause health problems. If using nectar feeders, make sure they are up, especially when these birds arrive in early May, and prior to their leaving in early September.

In addition to food, hummingbirds need water. Most of what they drink may come from flower nectar. Bathing at least daily is quite crucial to them in order to keep their rapidly moving wings cleaned. You can help provide water by having a birdbath or any rough-surfaced and shallow container.

They also like waterfalls as in a water feature, or even just water on leaves, which they fly through for a quick shower.  Or provide a hose sprinkler on a timer that they can fly through when it's on.

Provide large shrubs or small trees for them to perch on and rest, preen, and for protection. One of the best I've found is the common evergreen white cedar with some branches thinned out so they can fly among them better. Other perches might be as simple as a fence or clothesline.

Avoid using insecticides if possible. These can directly harm or kill hummingbirds. They can indirectly harm them as well through poisoning the insects they eat, either passing along such poison or killing this food source that they rely on for fat and protein.


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