It's a familiar lament: "Why don't I ever see hummingbirds at my nectar feeder?"
It was the same story in my backyard for many years. No matter how many feeders I put out, the ruby-throated hummingbirds stopped by only briefly in spring and fall on their way north or back south.
But as I read up on these little dynamos and their needs, the light began to dawn. The key to attracting hummingbirds and keeping them around all summer is making them feel at home, and a feeder filled with sugar water is really only the frosting on the cake.
Unlike many songbirds, hummingbirds don't form pairs, so what we're really after is a female hummingbird. And what she's looking for is a landscape she can rely on to sustain her brood.
First and foremost, hummingbirds need a visual "Stop" sign, so hang a basket outdoors with bright red blossoms in early spring. This eye-catching display may cause one or several hummingbirds to interrupt their headlong migration, especially if they're young birds looking to set up new territories.
Create a dynamo deli
Food is a major concern for racing metabolisms that need to be replenished every 15 minutes, and wild birds look first to familiar sources. Red, trumpet-shaped flowers announce "Sweet treats here." Even though I'm a big fan of native plants, many natives don't bloom until later in the summer. So go ahead and plant bright annuals to provide nectar early in the season, because what you're looking for are plants in bloom in a succession from spring through fall.
Natural nectar isn't the whole story because hummingbirds need protein — in fact, at least a quarter of their diet is on the carnivorous side. They're on the lookout for tiny insects, and these are attracted to plants with tiny flowers.
Even though hummingbirds think they're tough enough to take on all comers, safety from predators is a concern. So a backyard that offers shelter in the form of evergreen trees or shrubs, and/or dense deciduous shrubbery, earns another tick on the hummingbird checklist. They also need perches, since they spend a lot of time surveying their territory. A small tree or tall shrub, even an arbor or trellis, fills the bill.
Don't forget the wet stuff
These birds have an affinity for water, even though they don't bathe the way songbirds do (hummingbirds like to surf down a wet leaf, or across the surface of a water body). In the wild, females often locate their nests near a stream, lake or wetland. To mimic those conditions, a birdbath is essential, and one with a small fountain or spray attachment gets extra points.
Are you starting to get the idea that these are particular little birds? And we're not even finished with their list of specs.
Spiders play an unwitting role by providing nest-building materials, as female hummingbirds raid spider webs for strands of silk. This elastic material allows them to build tiny nests that expand with their growing broods. Avoid using broad-spectrum pesticides in your yard and garden, so spiders and essential insects aren't wiped out.
Don't feel you have to do everything all at once: Start with a few flowering plants and build from there. Remember that natives are the best because hummingbirds recognize them quickly, they're adapted to local conditions and they host the kinds of insects the little birds are familiar with.
Then, finally, it's time to hang out a nectar feeder. I can't promise that you'll host the little birds all summer long, but these steps make it much more likely.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some suggested plant magnets that appeal to ruby-throats:
Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa, A. incarnata, A. syriaca)
Blazing star (Liatris aspera, L. ligulistylis)
Royal catchfly (Silene regia)
Phlox (Phlox spp.)
Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis, P. grandiflorus, P. pallidus)
Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense)
Nonnative nectar plants
Dropmore scarlet honeysuckle
Salvias, especially 'Lady in Red'
The earliest ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving in late April, with numbers building to a peak in late May.
For more answers to hummingbird questions, check out www.hummingbirds.net.
It's easy to make your own hummingbird nectar at home: Add 1 part cane sugar to 4 parts water and mix well. Store any unused liquid in the frig.