Hummingbirds in the Garden

Hummingbirds in the Garden

An introduction to hummingbird biology and creating a hummingbird garden

By Published January 31, 2023

Shop for Hummingbird Plants at Plant Delights Nursery

I have always loved hummingbirds but my relationship with them changed dramatically in 2014. This was the year that I decided to take the plunge and focus an entire episode of the program “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan” on hummingbirds and their impact on our world. To understand just how these unbelievable biological machines work, we used high-speed cameras to slow them down to a speed the human eye can comprehend. Watch the short excerpt below from our original footage and be amazed. There’s really nothing else quite like it.

Now that you’ve seen this remarkable video shot by our videographer Colin Knight and our team, I think you will also have a different level of appreciation for what goes on around flowers that attract hummingbirds and hummingbird feeders. That video wasn’t easy to get. It took more than a year of preparation to shoot those images. First, we had to get the birds entrained to feeding just outside my office window, then we had to get them used to incredibly brilliant lighting. The setup for the incredibly high-speed and expensive camera utilized was among the most complex I’ve seen. The video was shot at 6,200 frames per second. The longest of the clips you just watched was around 1/20 of a second long in real time. A camera with shutter speeds that fast requires an incredible amount of light and that was provided by four halide lights that created a lot of heat. The entire setup had to be introduced gradually so that the swarms of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that had become so used to me at the window would not be spooked once we had the camera in place (which we had for only a single day). How did we manage to get those birds to come to just the right hummingbird flower at just the right time? This trick is one any photographer can use. Once the birds are used to food being in a particular location (the feeder) you simply substitute an inflorescence for the feeder. You can make the flower more attractive by loading the floral tubes with nectar (recipe below) and you’ll see the birds don’t miss a beat, they go right to the flowers, over, and over again.

Cameras pointed at a flower being visited by multiple hummingbirds
A snapshot of a portion of the extensive setup required to record the video

When we say that hummingbirds live life in fast-forward, we aren’t joking. These birds beat their wings about 80 times per second during regular flight and can beat them up to 200 times per second. They have a body temperature of around 107 degrees F (42 degrees C), their heart beats 250-1,200 times per minute and they take 250 breaths per minute. They fly at 20-30 miles per hour (32-48 kilometers per hour) and have been clocked in dives at 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). Everything these little birds do seems to be in fast forward.            

Have you ever pondered how much power is contained in the world’s smallest birds – tiny creatures that weigh about 3 grams for our Ruby-throated Hummingbird (about the same as a penny)? Can you believe that they have the power to transform the world as we see it? Hummingbirds have driven the look of plants in the Americas that are dependent on them for pollination (what we would term hummingbird flowers). To illustrate this point, one only need look at a pair of similar common garden plants: Lion’s Ear (Leonotis leonurus) and Bee Balm (Monarda didyma). The Lion’s Ear is native to south and eastern Africa and the Bee Balm is found right here in North America. Both are bird pollinated plants. Red and orangish red are colors that attract birds. You might notice how the American Robin is attracted to your holly hedge in January to devour the fruit. The red coloration is extremely apparent to birds and attracts their attention. Red fruit and red flowers indicate an intimate and dependent relationship with birds. Both Lion’s Ear and Bee Balm depend on birds but the flowers of Lion’s Ear are produced along the stem, among the leaves while those of Bee Balm are produced at the top of the plant, away from a landing platform. This is the case for most of the red-flowered plants in the Americas, their flowers would be difficult to get to if you had to land.

Close up image of Leonotis leonurus
Leonotis leonurus, pollinated by sunbirds
The hummingbird is uniquely adapted to reach them because they hover. Lion’s Ear attracts sunbirds, a group of small, Old-World birds that often act as pollinators but they have to land to stick their beak into the flowers. That’s why the flowers are where they are – they are convenient and next to a landing platform. Hummingbirds can hover because of the unique way that they beat their wings. They don’t flap like a typical bird; they move their wings in a figure-8 formation to produce lift on both the upswing and downswing. This allows them to perform feats that no other bird can match—like flying backwards and upside down!
Close up image of Monarda didyma
Monarda didyma, pollinated by hummingbirds

The high metabolism of hummingbirds is supported by a diet that is composed largely of nectar. Because of this they need to feed nearly constantly. In fact, at night, when feeding becomes impossible they must enter torpor to avoid starvation. Torpor is often simplified to “hibernation” by lay people and essentially what happens is that the birds reduce their heart rate to around 50 beats per minute, their breathing becomes nearly imperceptible and they drop their body temperature as low as 70 degrees F (21 degrees C). When morning comes, they shiver to generate heat and spring back to life and hustle off to the nearest nectar source to start the whole process again. You may think you’re a deep sleeper, but you have nothing on these tiny birds that essentially hibernate nightly!  

Because of their high metabolism they must visit a lot of flowers, in fact a single bird may visit 1,000 flowers in a single day. Hummingbirds live a rather long life for such small animals, often reaching the ripe old age of 10 years. In those 10 years a hummingbird may pollinate more than 3 million flowers! That astounding number translates into more than 3 million evolutionary events. Each time they make a choice of where to feed next, they are transferring pollen from one genetic individual to the other and in the process the plant becomes specialized to the fit of the hummingbird. Most horticulturalists know that flower color often has mutations and variability and a reddish or red-flowered form on an otherwise blue or yellow flowered species will certainly attract more attention and be flowers hummingbirds like. These hummingbirds will preferentially seek out other red-flowered forms and very quickly a novel mutation may be on its own evolutionary path away from the parental population. We can see this in populations of Painted Buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica) in the Upstate of South Carolina and Georgia. Here, rather than the greenish-yellow flowers we are so accustomed to in the North Carolina Piedmont, the buckeyes produce salmon pink flowers. Research has shown that the pink flowered plants have a few genes from the coastal species, Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) that were moved upstate, likely by hummingbirds during spring migration when both are in flower. The pink-flowered forms are likely more attractive to hummingbirds and thus the genes that were taken from the hybridization event were more successful and though most of the rest of the Painted Buckeye’s genome is pure, the genes for flower color have incorporated the color palette of Red Buckeye. This process happens continuously and the reason there is such a pattern to our red-flowered plants (termed a pollinator syndrome) is because of the enormous pressure these birds have in driving the morphology of our native wildflowers.

Hummingbirds live from the tip of South America to Alaska and throughout their range, the choices they have made are apparent in the red flowers that are placed out where only a hovering creature could reach them. From the Cardinal Monkeyflower (Erythranthe cardinalis) of the Pacific Northwest to the Red-flowered Mistletoe (Tristerix corymbosus) of southern Chile, each owes the shape, color, and position of the flower to the lowly little hummingbird. In some regions, such as the Valdivian rainforests of southern Chile they have been so powerful that roughly 20% of the woody plants have red, hummingbird-adapted flowers.

Making Good Garden Choices for Hummingbirds

Close up image of Rufous Hummingbirds
Rufous Hummingbirds in nest

Most modern gardeners consider a garden to be based on plants but inclusive of as much life and diversity as we can generate with our landscapes. Many gardeners particularly would like to attract hummingbirds. How can you engineer your landscape to be most attractive to hummingbirds? It’s quite easy. Hummingbirds do best in gardens that have a lot of edge habitat. Open areas full of good nectar flowers that are either on the edge of woodlands or have taller shrubs or trees that they can use for habitual perches. Most species require a very secluded area for their overnight torpor events and in my experience this is mostly found in dense evergreen shrubs. We had a large Osmanthus that held a hummingbird almost every night for years. Hummingbirds can nest almost anywhere but most often choose a spot that is slightly sheltered from the rain by a large leaf, etc. Most tend to be built in twiggy vegetation. A pair of Rufous Hummingbirds were nice enough to build a nest right along the garden path in a Hydrangea seemanii at Heronswood Garden in Kingston, WA, right at head level so the entire visiting public could observe them from a distance growing and fledging. The female does all the nest building and incubation as well as feeding of the young. The good for nothing male just shows up for the act of fertilization and then moves on. The mothers generally construct their tiny nest of various small bits of vegetation, lichen, moss, hair and then sew it all together tightly with spider web. After a couple weeks of incubation, the young hatch and will fledge at about 3 weeks of age.

Hummingbird feeders are great ways to attract many hummingbirds, but it comes with responsibility and some cautions. Be alert to regional disease patterns that might be impacting bird populations and remove feeders if alerts are issued regarding avian influenza or other ailments. During the summer feeders can reach high temperatures and their sugar water can easily spoil or ferment and become a danger to hummingbirds. Make sure to change the nectar frequently (as often as every other day in the heat of summer). I also make a point of sterilizing the feeder by soaking it in a 1:10 bleach solution in the sink while I’m preparing the next batch of nectar. The nectar recipe is easy. There is absolutely no need to buy it premade and the red dye that is found in most commercial nectars is not advantageous and could even be bad for the hummingbirds (but the jury is still out on that one). To make nectar simply combine 1 part sugar (common cane sugar granules) with 4 parts water and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn off the pot once it has boiled and allow it to cool. Thoroughly rinse out the feeder and refill. It’s that simple.

There is simply no substitute for natural food that comes from flowers for truly providing the best husbandry for your neighborhood hummers. What flowers attract hummingbirds? All of them! Plant as many good nectar sources as possible, fill your space as full as you can, and plant a variety of species that will provide flowers from spring through autumn. Great hummingbird plants don’t always come in red. Anna’s Hummingbirds have adapted to feeding on Mahonia and Arbutus flowers during the winter in the Puget Sound area of Washington where they were probably only formerly summer residents and now maintain a population year round.
See our comprehensive list of hummingbird flowers.

Flowers That Attract Hummingbirds

If you live in the Southeastern United States in Zone 7b or warmer, this is my list of favorite flowers that attract hummingbirds.

Anisacanthus wrightii – this incredible short, Texas native shrub is completely covered with red, tubular flowers from mid-summer through frost. The common name Hummingbird Bush gives away its association with hummingbirds. Though some people might think that our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds would be attracted to local flowers, they will swarm to this Texan—it’s definitely a hummingbird plant! One must not forget that all our hummingbirds are migratory and meet a great diversity of flowers that attract hummingbirds in their trip to and from the tropics. A big bonus with Hummingbird Bush is that it also is irresistible to sulphur butterflies.

Dicliptera suberecta – With a name like Hummingbird Plant it should come as no surprise that this incredible densely branched perennial is a great choice. This native of Uruguay has grayish leaves with a felt-like texture and produces a profusion of tubular reddish-orange flowers from mid-summer through frost. Drought tolerant and a great pollinator plant.

Erythrina x bidwillii – this is a hybrid derived from a cross of the native Erythrina herbacea and the South American Erythrina herbacea that produces an abundance of flowers from mid-summer through frost. Plants die back to the ground in harsh winters but return with vigor by late spring. These plants do best when planted in well drained soils or raised beds. The native Erythrina herbacea is also a great plant but has a much shorter late spring-early summer flowering period and is generally less winter hardy.

Fuchsia ‘Sanihanf’ – The four years I spent in southern Chile were never far from a burgeoning Fuchsia full of flowers and full of Emerald Firecrown Hummingbirds. Since that time I’ve always wanted to find a Fuchsia that would grow and thrive in our hot, humid summers—well consider it found. This is a great plant for a hanging basket on the back porch that will attract hummingbirds into your comfort zone.

Lilium canadense – Though the flowering season may not be as long as the other species I’ve listed here, the beautiful red, drooping bell-shaped flowers of the Red Canada Lily are irresistible to hummingbirds and to gardeners alike. The bold flowers and uniqueness of a hummingbird-pollinated lily makes this one of my must have picks for the hummer friendly garden.

Lobelia cardinalis – Few plants can challenge this beautiful North American native for sheer number of hummingbirds attracted. Though plants may only be happy for a couple years in any one location, they seed around the garden and generally end up where they are most happy. These plants are best in moist areas of the garden in full or partial sun. Don’t mulch the overwintering rosettes as they continue to photosynthesize throughout the winter months. There are several selections that perform with same effect for hummingbirds such as Lobelia cardinalis ‘Towering Inferno,’ Lobelia cardinalis ‘Black Truffle’ which has dark purple foliage, and Lobelia x speciosa ‘Compliment Deep Red.’

Malvaviscus drummondii – A hibiscus relative that is adapted for hummingbirds! This incredible and long-lived perennial hails from Texas and produces hundreds of brilliant red hibiscus-like flowers that never seem to quite open all the way. It flowers non-stop from early summer through frost.

Salvia darcyi ‘Presidio’ – Though this plant is native to a small area in Mexico, I came across an extremely upright clone of this fabulous hummingbird plant while travelling along the border in south Texas. No doubt it was escaped from a planting in the village of Presidio but it caught my attention and has excelled in its performance in our garden here in Raleigh. The plant flowers from early summer through frost with a burst of flowers at the beginning and end of the season but is seemingly never without flowers for nearly 6 months. Many other Salvia, if not all of them, make great hummingbird plants and I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention how awesome the long-flowering season of Salvia microphylla and Salvia greggii were for attracting hummers.

Silene virginica ‘Jackson Valentine’  and Silene subciliata – The red-flowered Silene are magnets for hummers. The local native, Silene virginica is often difficult in the garden and short-lived. A superior selection from Alabama ‘Jackson Valentine’ provides us with the most garden worthy and easy cultivar we’ve grown. Plant them in a well-drained location in full or partial sun. They produce abundant red flowers from spring (just as hummers return) through early summer. Silene subciliata is a very similar Texas native that is easy to grow in well-drained soils and produces flowers from early autumn through frost.

Spigelia marilandica – The versatile Woodland Pink is an incredible performer in the garden and gives us the option of planting the hummingbird adapted flowers in the partial shade. These plants are covered with flowers that are red on the outside and yellow inside and held upright in late spring and often reflower later in the year. Two of the finest cultivars that have had superior performance in our garden, produce an abundance of flowers, and bring out the hummers are Spigelia marilandica ‘Ragin Cajun,’ and ‘Little Redhead.’

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