If you’re slow to get the hummingbird feeder refilled, you might just catch an earful. Hummingbirds aren’t shy; they’ll fly up to an empty feeder and let out a string of short, sharp chirps that seem to scold you for your laziness.
It’s not surprising, since the sky-high metabolism of these tiny birds means they live in an almost constant low-blood-sugar crisis. You’d be cranky, too. Sheri Williamson, co-director of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, jokes that a hummingbird’s vocabulary is 100 percent swearwords.
The best way to avoid a telling-off is to plant plenty of nectar-rich flowers that cater to hummingbirds’ particular taste and foraging style. Although hummingbirds drink heavily from them, feeders remain only a supplement to the flowers that are their primary nectar source.
Be aware, though, that hummers don’t live on sweets alone; in fact, most folks are surprised to learn that insects and spiders are a big part of their diet. All that sugar is just fuel; they may visit as many as 1,000 flowers per day, consuming the sweet nectar that powers their bug-seeking activities. At the end of the day, this little bird that weighs only one-tenth of an ounce will have consumed half its body weight in sugar.
Hummingbirds start to arrive in Minnesota the first week in May, on average. Having preferred flowers starting early in the season helps to guarantee that they’ll stick around your garden, since they’ll find it suitable for nesting as well as food. But it’s not too late to pop in some hummingbird-preferred plants to lure them in for summer’s duration.
The petite birds are adapted to funnel-shaped or tubular flowers that can be accessed only by a narrow proboscis like theirs. Without a sense of smell, hummingbirds use further visual cues to find food sources, the color red acting as an “Eat Here” sign. However hummers can be found on certain white or blue flowers, too.
I make sure they visit my garden by placing lots of their favorite flowers right by my feeders. To provide a season-long buffet of nectar sources, I position annuals I know are surefire hummingbird magnets, along with proven perennials. It’s not unusual to see them flitting back and forth between the flowers and the feeders.
Hummingbirds frequently pause to rest while they peruse the garden for bug snacks. They’ll appreciate it if you have handy plant stakes or perching spots situated through the garden for this purpose.
Hummingbirds can be considered another tool in your pest-fighting arsenal, so try to avoid or limit pesticide use to encourage their presence. They are known to consume gnats, mosquitoes, aphids and mites, among other pesky bugs.
If you’re lucky enough that your garden draws them in large numbers, bird fights can break out. It’s fun to watch them engage in kamikaze-like aerial maneuvers as they defend their territory against other hummers. However, you may want to locate feeders and flowers in several places to spread the spoils and contain the bickering, as well as to gain more hummer-watching vantage points.
As the season progresses, hummingbird sightings increase as adults, as well as newly fledged young, are all feeding and stocking up for their impending migration. Fortunately, that’s the time lots of these time-tested hummingbird flowers are in bloom.
Contrary to popular thought, leaving feeders up into the fall doesn’t delay the hummingbirds’ migration. In fact, according to University of Minnesota hummingbird expert Donald Mitchell, leaving feeders up will help any stragglers rather than delay them, since decreasing day length is what triggers migration, not scarcity of food. He reiterates that maintaining clean feeders is the most important thing you can do besides planting good quantities of hummer-friendly flowers.
Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer who blogs at www.thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” due Feb. 1, 2016; available for pre-order on Amazon.