a friend phoned to tell me she'd just seen her first hummingbird of the
year. A male Ruby-throat stopped by the feeder she'd just put up by a
hanging basket of fuchsias and had a good sweet drink. It's a marvelous
day, when the hummingbirds arrive in the Midwest.
they arrived on the Gulf coast, in early March, they've been probing their
way north flower by flower, as spring opened ahead of them. Here in Iowa,
as in much of the Midwest, many hummingbirds pass right on through. But
if you're ready, you can attract hummingbirds
to your garden and hold their loyalty for a while.
are not afraid of people. It's easy to get one to land on
blossoms and sweet water are magnets for hummingbirds. The tiny birds'
need for nourishment is intense, for they have the highest metabolic rate
of any bird, and they consume nearly their weight in nectar every day.
On their long journey north, they are always looking
for food. It's said that every square foot of land in North America is
investigated by hummingbirds in the course of a year. If you provide the
right flowers, hummingbirds will be the inevitable result. Special feeders
that hold sugar water will also do the trick, though they require more
element in attracting hummingbirds is to be ready when they arrive. In
southern Iowa, Ruby-throats can show up as early as the end of April.
Males appear first, females later. I try to have at least one hummingbird
feeder out by April 25, though I usually don't see a hummer until the
first week of May.
that first gorgeous little fellow checks out my garden, I want to be sure
he finds something wonderful. Something irresistible. One part granulated
white sugar in four parts of clean boiled water. Finding such a rich source
of food, a hummingbird is likely to stay for several days before moving
In a few
weeks, with more hummers still arriving daily, the columbines bloom in
my yard, and they provide an added incentive to the tiny birds. Hummingbirds
that the columbine and the hummingbird helped to create each other, adapting
to each other's shape and habits. The blossom's five long red spurs each
contain a tiny meal for a hummingbird. Inserting its long bill into a
spur of the flower, the hummingbird bumps its head onto the pollen-laden
anthers that hang below the petals. When it goes to the next flower, the
bird gets another taste of nectar, and the genetic material from one columbine
mixes with that of another. Everybody is happy.
I am happy
too, when I get to watch this evolutionary drama in action. I used to
buy annual bedding plants every spring and laboriously plant them in front
of our house, and then water and weed and worry over them. I guess the
flowers were hybrids whose power of generation had been bred out of them,
because the flowers never came back the following year unless I replanted
new ones. Perhaps the nectar had been lost, too. I never saw any hummingbirds
year I put in a couple of starts of wild columbine, given to me by an
elderly neighbor, who'd been nurturing them for 50 years. The columbines
flourished in my garden and have become a permanent feature. They don't
need watering or pampering: they are native to Iowa; they belong here
and are adapted to our climate. They come back spontaneously every year,
renewed by the abundant seeds they produce all by themselves. With a little
help from hummingbirds.
place a feeder in the columbine patch, so that hummingbirds will discover
it easily. Hummingbirds remember where they found satisfaction last year.
I've seen them examine an area where flowers bloomed in the past, and
I've seen one hover inquiringly exactly in the spot where a feeder hung
in a previous season.
a penny on your finger and feel its weight. That is how much a Ruby-throated
Hummingbird weighs. But this bird of one tenth ounce has some miles under
his belt. Last fall he flew to Central America, where he spent the winter.
Then, as the days began to lengthen at winter's end, the hummingbird began
to get fat. He gained as much as a twentieth of an ounce, or half again
his body weight. He moved to the Yucatan Peninsula, which juts up into
the Gulf of Mexico.
he rose into the sky and flew out over the salt water of the Gulf. All
night he flew northward. When morning came he was hundreds of miles from
land in any direction, and he kept flying toward North America. Late in
the afternoon, he made landfall somewhere on the Gulf coast. All his fat
had been used up, and he was hungry as a bear. Compared to a hummingbird
who has just flown more than 500 miles nonstop, bears don't know what
hungry is. What the taste of the first blossom after that flight must
be to him!
United States has over a dozen species of hummingbirds, but the Ruby-Throated
is the only kind we have in most of the east. It nests primarily in forests,
preferably near a stream. In Iowa, most of the hummers go to the forested
northeastern part of the state. They usually grace our towns only in migration.
However, a female sometimes chooses a garden well-stocked with nectar-producing
flowers. She builds a walnut-sized nest of lichens and spider webs.
eggs hatch into babies that look at first like small wet bees. The mother
bird feeds them by putting her long bill down their throats, as if they
were sword-swallowers. As the nestlings grow, the spider-web nest walls
stretch, so that the nest seems to open like a flower. When the young
can fly, the mother shows them good places to eat, including the hummingbird
feeder. Hummingbirds are not afraid of people. You can watch them up close,
and they'll often come over just to take a closer look at you.
entice a female to nest in your garden, you may have hummingbirds all
summer long. But even if they seem to disappear in summer, hummingbirds
will reappear in August and September, during their southbound migration.
They're mostly gone from Iowa before the onset of cool weather.
are with us only for a short while each year. But, like gems, their beauty
makes up for their rarity. This is a piercingly lovely bird, with its
sparkling iridescent green back and its jeweled throat. When I see one
rise up on whirring wings from the heart of a lily blossom and hover before
my face, I feel as if I've been greeted by the soul of the garden.
--Diane Cooledge Porter
Copyright © 1997 by Diane Porter. All rights reserved.
Feeder that mounts on your window
For more about hummingbirds see Nancy
Newfield's new book, Hummingbird
Gardens. It has excellent photographs of all the hummingbirds of North
America with notes about each species' natural history. It contains many
practical gardening ideas for turning your yard into a hummingbird haven.
Nancy Newfield (the Hummingbird Lady) lives on the Gulf Coast where she
has been studying hummingbirds for many years. She has made many original
contributions to scientific understanding of hummingbirds and their ranges.