Hummingbirds Bring Joy and Health
by Michael and Kathi Rock
We, along with thousands of other people across the United States and Canada, have hummingbird fever, and it’s incurable! Many scientific studies have shown that a connection with nature and animals, wild or domestic, has so many physical and mental health benefits. An easy and almost cost-free way to bring those health-enhancing benefits into your life is to begin attracting hummingbirds to your own backyard. These “glittering fragments of the rainbow” are exotic and magical birds, but they are also birds that will visit your Wisconsin garden as readily as a robin if you can provide them with the best food and habitat.
The amazing thing about hummingbirds, which are the size of your thumb and with eggs only as large as tic tacs, is not only all the amazing things they can do and their beautiful feathers, but that you can see them every spring, summer, and early fall without even leaving your home. Hummingbirds are born and bred in the northern part of the U.S. and Canada and spend their winter vacations in sunny Mexico and Central America. When they make their way back to Wisconsin in late April and early May, they are staking out their breeding territories and searching out the best food sources. With hummingbird feeders and brilliant tubular flowers blooming from May to October, maybe your garden can become one of their favorite places to visit!
The most common question that people ask us is “What kind of hummingbirds do you see in your garden?” The only species of hummingbird that breeds and is regularly seen east of the Mississippi River is the ruby-throated hummingbird. The adult male ruby-throat displays a spectacular red throat, or gorget, to attract as many female birds as possible. Occasionally, other hummingbirds from the west such as the rufous or broad-billed hummingbirds are seen in Wisconsin, but this is rare.
The key elements of a great hummingbird garden are shelter, food, and water, in that order. Shelter comes in the form of mature trees and thick shrubbery such as a lilac bush. As hummingbirds spend about 75% of their day perching and also need a place to escape from predators, the right shelter is extremely important. You can provide food through well-maintained hummingbird feeders and flowers—and we highly recommend both to ensure that hummingbirds will visit during the entire season. A garden grown organically without pesticides will ensure large numbers of small insects, which the birds depend on for their survival. Water is the final element that will attract more hummingbirds (and other birds) to your property. Hummingbirds require very shallow water, so most bird baths are too deep for their needs. You can create shallow water by adding flat rocks to a standard-size bird bath. Even better is a small garden pond with moving water and a mister or a dripper or both. The sound of trickling water will be stress relieving to you and beneficial to the birds. It is essentially important to place feeders, flowers, and your water source in places where you can easily see the birds enjoying them.
When selecting plants for your garden, think red or orange colored flowers (there are a few exceptions, of course). Good hummingbird plants typically have a multitude of tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers and bloom for long periods of time. Hummingbirds need to feed every 15 minutes and may visit up to 1,000 flowers in your garden each day! A bonus of creating a hummingbird garden is that many beautiful butterflies will also visit your property. A few examples of easy to grow plants that will be highly attractive to your hummingbirds include:
Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle): Perennial vine to zone 4. Late spring blooming, but will bloom sporadically throughout the season with orange or red tubular flowers . Best in full sun but will tolerate light shade.
Monarda didyma (bee balm): Perennial to zone 4. Summer blooming. Select red, mildew-resistant varieties. Best in full sun but grows well in all light exposures.
Salvia guaranitica (anise sage): Annual in all northern zones. Blooms summer to frost. Purple tubular flowers beloved by hummingbirds. Full sun. Will work in containers. You may need to order this plant through mail order, but well worth the trouble!
Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower): Native wildflower and perennial to zone 2. Blooms late summer to early fall with brilliant red flowers. Full sun to partial shade (prefers a moist soil).
Fuchsia triphylla (gartenmeister bonstedt): Annual in all northern zones. Blooms late spring to frost with long tubular orange flowers (this variety is better for hummingbirds than the “fancy” hybrid fuchsias). Excellent for containers or window boxes.
Salvia coccinea (scarlet or tropical sage): Annual in all northern zones. Blooms summer to frost with brilliant red tubular flowers. Works in containers. Full sun. Very easy to grow from seed.
Cuphea ‘David Verity’ (Mexican cigar plant): Annual in all northern zones. Blooms summer to frost with small tubular orange flowers. Works well in containers. Full sun.
When beginning a hummingbird garden, it is important to start small and build slowly and never provide more than you can realistically care for (and small can be beautiful—many people living in apartments or condominiums have very limited space, but the hummingbirds don’t mind!). To start, you may wish to hang one or two feeders and create a few pots of long-blooming plants. If you can, planting a trumpet honeysuckle vine and some red bee balm the second year might be a great goal. Planting and caring for plants that also feed beautiful hummingbirds provides multiple rewards and is wonderful for health and well being.
There is nothing quite as thrilling as seeing the first spring hummingbird, glittering brightly in the fresh sunlight, after a long, cold winter in Wisconsin. Capturing some of that hummingbird magic for yourself will bring endless richness and beauty to your life and a deep connection to the natural world. Here’s to your good health and your hummingbirds!
Michael and Kathi Rock have been studying hummingbird behavior and gardening for hummingbirds for over ten years. Their garden, in Madison, contains 100+ varieties of annual and perennial plants that attract the little birds and they maintain 20+ feeders. They have traveled extensively in the U.S. to learn about hummingbirds and also publish a newsletter about hummingbird gardening in the Northern U.S. (The Hummingbird Nectar News).