BY SHERYL AND ROBERT YANTIS • SPECIAL TO THE PICAYUNE
Every spring, we wait for the weather to warm up and for the hummingbirds to return to our gardens from their winter vacations in Central and South America. Some of these aerial acrobats spend the summer and autumn in our gardens, and some of them are just passing through before flying to their summer homes farther north.
Of the more than 300 species, fewer than 10 nest and breed here — although you might observe many more visiting species.
When planning your hummingbird garden, remember, like all birds, hummingbirds need food, water, shelter and nesting sites. More than one-half of a hummingbird’s diet consists of insects, which are an essential protein for the growth of hatchlings. Insect-friendly, nectar-rich flower gardens and supplemental hummingbird feeders will keep these beautiful birds well fed.
Hummingbirds are attracted to brightly colored tubular flowers and particularly love red flowers. Provide flowers with different bloom times, which will provide an abundant food source over a long time period. Be sure to include summer flowering plants along with spring and fall blooming flowers to provide food for migrating hummingbirds. Avoid using chemicals as much as possible. Even small amounts of herbicides or insecticides can contaminate flower nectar and be fatal to hummingbirds. Use compost to fertilize your plants and attract the insects upon which hummingbirds feed.
If you are going to provide supplemental food for your hummingbirds, use the classic formula of four parts water (4 cups) to one part sugar (1 cup). Increasing the concentration can make it harder for the hummingbirds to digest. If your tapwater contains heavy chemicals, you should boil the water before adding the sugar to help purify it. Using sweeteners other than plain sugar or opting for sugar substitutes can also make the nectar worthless or even dangerous to hummingbirds. It is not necessary to dye the nectar red. Feeders should be regularly cleaned and sterilized so they are safe for hummingbirds to use. Hummingbirds are territorial, so provide more than one feeder.
When you provide water for hummingbirds, you must take into account their small size, which makes small shallow basins, misters and drippers ideal water sources. Hummingbirds also like moving water sources such as sprinklers, fountains and waterfalls. They will often perch in a spray or fly through moving water to cool off or bathe. Water sources should be kept fresh and clean, and when you place water near nectar-rich flowers, you will make it even more attractive to hummingbirds.
Trees can provide necessary shelter and nesting sites in your garden. Both large and small trees can provide sheltered areas where the birds can perch and are safe from predators and bad weather. Hummingbirds cannot walk or hop, though their feet can be used to scoot sideways while they are perched. These birds have evolved smaller feet to be lighter for more efficient flying.
A variety of trees will provide good options for nests. Hummingbirds will not use birdhouses no matter the size, shape or color. Most nests will not be reused, but if your yard is safe and attractive, you can easily encourage hummingbirds to nest nearby for many years. Hummingbird nests are difficult to see. Make sure you do not provide them with supplemental nesting materials, which will make their nests visible to predators.
Every year, we wait for the hummingbirds to arrive and fill our gardens with hours of fun. As the days get longer and the flowers start to bud, these small bundles of joy will arrive and fill our days with delight. Enjoy these beautiful birds and provide a place where they can prosper.
Robert and Sheryl Yantis are Master Gardeners and Earth-Kind® specialists with the Highland Lakes Master Gardener Association, a part of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. For more gardening information, visit their website at www.yantislakesidegardens.com.