Hummingbird Gardening Jul 1997

One of the most fascinating things about hummingbirds is their speed. This year I witnessed the awesome aerial airshows males perform for females. The display is a series of spectacular high dives and whistling sounds in front of the female and if accepted the brief act of copulation follows. After mating, the females build, incubate, and raise the young on her own. Nests are small, about the size of a half walnut shell, and are made out local materials to camouflage the nest. These include downy fibers, plant material such as cottonwood or desert willow seed tuft, and is tied together with spider webbing. Two tiny eggs the size of pinto beans are laid. Approximately two to three weeks later the babies are born naked, blind, and stub-billed. The mother feeds them nectar and insects and about three to four weeks after hatching they take flight. Often the mother will be on her second nest when feeding the fledglings.

Perhaps the most overlooked item in the hummingbird garden is water. Misconception is that feeders provide them with all the water they need, but hummers also enjoy water features for bathing and drinking. Unfortunately traditional birdbaths are not well suited for this purpose. Generally they need a bath that is a quarter to half an inch deep. Retrofitting a birdbath is easy by adding pebbles to adjust the water level. Sometimes they are found bathing in water collected in the curve of a plant leaf after a rain. Hummers also show a preference for water systems in the form of splashing or misting that they can fly through.

For gardeners, selecting plants that attract hummingbirds can be addictive. Hummingbird and gardening books will list (dozens of native plants suited to every region in the country. Flowers that attract hummers generally are in the hues of red-orange, odorless, and tubular shaped.

Here are a few plants that have proven to be great magnets in my hummingbird garden: desert willow; chitalpa; all of the salvia's regardless of color!; trumpet creeper; ocotillo; bottlebrush; desert honeysuckle; lantana; aloe agave; penstemons (ALL of them!) common thistle; fairy duster; red yucca; and to my amazement and delight Texas rangers (Leucophyllum sp.).

By using an assortment of plants that bloom from early spring through late fall you will not only attract hummingbirds but butterflies, sphinx moths, and birds, especially the orioles.

Sources and recommended reading: Hummingbirds of North America - Attracting Feeding & Photographing, Dan True, University of New Mexico Press. Hummingbird Gardens-Attracting Nature's Jewels to Your Backyard, Nancy L. Newfield and Barbara Nielsen, Chapters Publishing LTD. The Hummingbird Book, Donald and Lillian Stokes, Little, Brown and Company

Cheri Melton
July, 1997