In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Hummingbirds build well-constructed nests in populated areas. Image courtesy of Matt Korn, Pacifica, CA
Have you ever kept a hummingbird feeder in your garden? Before moving onto the boat we always kept a feeder full of clean sugar syrup and thoroughly enjoyed the antics of these tiny feathered "star fighters." They are bold creatures and will become quite accustomed to having a human caring for their feeder. In some cases they will actually come right up to your hand while you are performing feeder maintenance. I have even had them come up to my hand while I was watering. They seem to like the mist from the hose and will hang around for quite a long time if you hold very still.
It's not unusual to have a dozen or more hummingbirds vying for position at the feeder, and there is always one male that defends his territory with tenacity.
Plants that Attract Hummers
Attracting hummingbirds to your garden is as easy as planting a bottle brush shrub (Callistemon). Other common and easy to grow plants that attract hummingbirds include crocosmia, foxglove (Digitalis), Lobelia cardinalis, honeysuckle (Lonicera), fuchsia, lupine, monkey flower (Mimulus), bee balm (Mondara), and Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha). The more you have to for them to choose from, the more hummingbirds you will attract.
Some hummingbirds, including the rufus and ruby-throated, are migratory, leaving the Bay area during the winter for warmer climates, and then returning to breed in early spring. The fall migration is triggered by hormones and the decreasing length of daylight hours. It is generally accepted by scientists that the tiny ruby-throated hummers fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico in the spring. Anna's hummingbirds, on the other hand, are native to the West Coast and do not migrate, so keep a feeder full and clean all year around for these regional residents.
Hummingbird nests are about the size of a fifty-cent piece and hold between two and four babies. The nests are made of moss, spider webs, and lichen. It's not uncommon for a female hummingbird to build a nest over a busy sidewalk intersection. Look for the tiny nest just above eye level. When the chicks hatch the female spends much of her time searching for protein in the form of small insects and spiders to feed her babies and doesn't wander far from the nest. The nest gets pretty crowded around fledging time.
Should a hummingbird become trapped inside the house, it's easy to encourage them back outside by hanging something red in an open window, preferably their favorite feeder, but a flower or bit of red cloth will do. The hummers are attracted to the red color and will eventually follow their instincts to freedom. I found a hummingbird trapped upstairs in my office building recently. I set an artificial red poinsettia near the opening at the bottom of the stairs. When I returned a few minutes later, the hummer was long gone.
Feeders should be kept clean because sugar ferments in hot weather, resulting in the production of yeast, bacteria and mold which is harmful to hummingbirds. Rinsing the feeder well with hot water each time you refill should suffice.
If the weather stays below 70 degrees, change the solution in the feeder once a week, more frequently in warm weather. When the temperature reaches the mid 80's, change the solution daily.
The ideal feeder solution is one part sugar dissolved in four parts water. Use hot water right out of the tap and the sugar will dissolve with some brisk stirring. Sugar solution can be made ahead and kept up to one week in the refrigerator. Red food coloring is not necessary if you are using a good quality feeder. To keep ants away, spread petroleum jelly on the wire from which the feeder hangs.
Watching hummingbirds go about their daily "star wars" is extremely entertaining. Set up a feeder, set your deck chair in a prime viewing spot, and enjoy!
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