Planting for Hummers

Ruby-throated hummingbird. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.


Guest Column by Maria de Bruyn

If you’ve been spending time walking in natural areas or visiting parks like the NC Botanical Garden, have you noticed an increase in the number of hummingbirds that are around? The female birds have raised their young and they, the adult males with beautiful red gorgets (throats) and young birds are all furiously looking for food now.

You might also see some birds with lots of white color — most of these have begun their yearly pre-migration molting period, when they replace all their feathers except those on their tails and wings. The emerging pin feathers are white, as you can see from the photo.

Hummer gorget and molting. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.

Many people, including those who are not birders, put out nectar feeders in their yards or nearby areas in order to attract the hummingbirds. (The best mixture to feed them is made with 4 cups of boiled water and 1 cup of granulated white sugar; no dye!)

Our local ruby-throated hummingbirds spend lots of time visiting feeders in summer and early fall as they prepare to gain weight for their long migration in the fall.  Scientific studies have shown that some of them can fly 1,200 miles non-stop to their winter destinations in Mexico and Central America. Quite a feat for an 0.11-ounce bird!

Nectar is not their main food, however. These tiny fliers with feet that only grip (and on which they cannot walk) have up to 1,260 heart beats per minute and need enormous amounts of nutrition to survive. Insects and spiders comprise 80 percent of their diet and the best place for them to find these meals is on native plants. Many gardeners therefore choose perennial plants that will attract these lovely birds, like the bee balm (Monarda).

If you have an area in which you can plant native flowers, spring and autumn are the best of times of year to plant perennials. Autumn planting has two advantages: it gives the plants time to develop strong roots so that they will thrive in spring and summer, and many garden centers will have summer-blooming perennial plants on sale in late August and September!

The hummers visit many types of flowers of various colors. The five currently living in my yard have been feasting on lantana and butterfly bush, as well as different types of salvias (many of which are also known as sage).

These energetic avians are especially attracted to plants with red and orange flowers, however, such as trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, coral honeysuckle, jewelweed and bee balm. These flowers also attract many species of butterflies, so do give some thought to fall planting for the hummers if you are in the fortunate position of being able to do so. You may be rewarded by having the same hummingbirds return next year — they can recognize and remember individual humans and feeding sites they like!

Hummers with plants. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.

To learn a bit more about the fascinating anatomy and behaviors of hummers, you can check out these videos:

Maria de Bruyn participates in several bird-focused citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at

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