Attracting Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds can be found in a wide variety of environments in the New World, from the high Andes (over 4000 m.) to lowlands, and from dry desert areas to the rain forests. In all these environments, their source of nutrition is primarily nectar from flowers, as well as sources of protein such as insects and tiny spiders. They also need places to perch and rest during the day and to sleep at night, usually trees or large plants such as cacti. Nearly all must bathe regularly. Understanding these essential facts is the key to attracting them to a yard or other location.

Flowers as Nectar Sources
Flowers should be chosen for their ability to produce nectar, to grow well in your particular region, and to be in bloom when the hummingbirds need them. These provide the fundamental basis for creating a hummingbird-friendly yard or garden.

Color can be important to a hummingbird's search process for locating flowers containing nectar. The majority of plant species that are known to attract hummingbirds have blossoms that are red to orange in color. Hummingbirds are not that restrictive, however, and will regularly visit blossoms of any color which they learn contain sufficient nectar to make it worth their time.

There are several possible explanations for the preference of red flowers. Since insects also seek nectar, they can be regarded as competitors. Most insects see well in the visible and near-ultraviolet but poorly in the red end of the spectrum. Said another way, a red blossom may appear nearly black and unattractive to some insects--but not to the hummer, which can see not only the full visible spectrum but also some in the ultraviolet (as indicated by the presence of a 4th cone in the retina). This makes it less likely that an insect has taken nectar from a red flower, i.e., increases the odds of successful foraging for the hummingbird. Hummingbirds are extremely fast learners. Another possible explanation is that during migration, red blossoms contrast more strongly with a green environment than do other colors.

Blossom shape can be a determining factor to flowers that are visited by hummingbirds. Nectar contained in a long, tubular blossom is easily extracted by a hummingbird, whose tongue can extend a distance equal to its beak length and reach where most insects cannot. Downward-hanging blossoms with no "landing" platform are also less attractive to insects. Below is an inflorescence of Lonicera sempervirens (Trumpet Honeysuckle), a hummingbird favorite, and illustrative of a blossom that displays all desirable characteristics.

Nectar volume influences a flower's attractiveness.  Very tiny blossoms, such as those on the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) or Lantana may offer nectar but require many visits to make it worthwhile, and thus may not be the favorites except for small species. Even Columbines (Aguilegia spp.), often listed as a hummingbird favorite, are less attractive to larger hummingbird species than smaller ones.  At the other end of the spectrum the common Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) produces one of the highest known volumes of nectar per blossom.

Fragrance: Most hummingbird flowers have no fragrance, adding another reason as to why insects visit them infrequently. Hummingbirds have little or no sense of smell.

Choosing flower species:  A thorough answer to this question is beyond the limits of this web page, although it will be addressed in the future in the Gardener's Corner. The following information may be useful.

A visit to a local nursery and/or garden club is usually the best starting point. Find experienced individuals who can tell you which species and varieties grow well in your area and have a history of success in attracting hummingbirds. Long lists of plant species are interesting but usually lack the kind of detailed information to differentiate them for your area. Similarly, lists that work for residents of the U.S.A. are often of little value to the gardener in Santiago, Chile, or San Jose, Costa Rica. We repeat:  local advice can be of exceptional value to planning a hummingbird garden.

With the above qualification in mind, here are some plant families to be considered. Often the best choices in each family are the red or orange varieties, and possibly purple. Plants that are native to your area may have the best odds of survival and be readily familiar to hummingbirds, but be imaginative.

The 10 Best Plant Families for Attracting Hummingbirds*
Mint Family
  Salvias (Salvia spp.)
  Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
  Giant Hyssop (Agastache spp.)

  Aquilegia spp.

  Lonicera spp.
     esp. Trumpet Honeysuckle
     (L. sempervirens) Bignonia Family
  Trumpet Creeper
  Cross Vine
  Desert Willow
  Yellow Bells

 Penstemon spp.
  Lobelia spp.
     esp. Cardinal Flower (L. cardinalis)
     L. laxiflora

Mallow Family
  Turk's Cap
  Flowering Maple (Abutilon pictus)
  Hollyhock (as Alcea rosea)
  Hardy Hibiscus
  Rose of Sharon
Evening Primrose Family
  Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)
  California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica)
  Fuchsias (Fuchsia spp.)

Morning Glories
 Ipomoea spp.
     esp. Cypress Vine
 Red Morning Glory
 Scarlet Creeper
 Bush Morning Glory
Acanthus Family
  Desert Honeysuckle
  Flame Acanthus
  Chuparosa (Justicia californica)
  Mexican Honeysuckle (J. spicigera)
  Shrimp Plant (J. brandegeana)

* Courtesy of Sheri Williamson, Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory;
author of Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds (T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, NJ, $7.95) and The Peterson Field Guide to Hummingbirds.

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