Story by Jacqueline Zilliox
Male ruby-throated hummingbirds set out a few weeks earlier than their female counterparts from their southern winter vacation. It takes them approximately two months to reach Southern Maryland. Their diet consists in part of tiny flying insects and in part of nectar. When they arrive, they will need to replenish their energy and weight, and because there aren’t many flowers in bloom at that time, it’s important to have your feeders at the ready. Their arrival is typically on or about April 15.
"The males will quickly set to work establishing their nectar-rich, quarter-acre size territory,” says Ingrid Swan of the St. Mary’s County Garden Club. Feeders are extremely important to the hummingbirds initially. Choose one that’s easy to clean; those with an opening wide enough to get a sponge inside are best. Since hummingbirds don’t like dirty, stale or fermented liquid, changing the sugary water every three days is imperative. Feeders should be cleaned once a month with a solution of a quarter cup of bleach to a gallon of water, then rinsed thoroughly.
Hummingbird food is simple: one part sugar to four parts water. No food coloring is needed, but it makes it easier to check the level of water. It’s not necessary to fill the feeder very full at the beginning of the season, as there are fewer birds until the hatchlings start feeding the first week in June. Swan has found that if red flowers are planted close to the feeders, they help attract hummingbirds.
Mary Beth Chandler of the Charles County Garden Club recalls seeing a lot of hummingbirds and butterflies in her grandmother’s perennial garden beds. “Grandma had lots of morning glories, purple bee balm, nasturtiums, zinnia, marigolds, sweet peas, cosmos, petunias and trumpet vine.” If structure is what you’re looking for, begin with good bones such as butterfly bush, buddleia, lilacs, columbine, butterfly weed and clematis. Don’t forget annuals with tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers and lots of sweet nectar, such as hummingbird vine, Carolina jessamine, trumpet honeysuckle or blue passionflower. If you wish to extend the season, plant yarrow, milkweed or sedum. For the patio gardener, containers of red geraniums, white petunias or begonias would be the hummingbirds’ choice.
Judy Kay, Calvert County Master Gardener, recommends attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden with native plants. Butterflies are usually attracted to whatever hummingbirds are, so when planting consider these natives to attract both: cardinal flower, great blue lobelia, blazing star, bee balm, giant hyssop, smooth beard-tongue and native trumpet honeysuckle. Please remember that herbicides will kill butterflies, which is why Kay recommends using natives. Plus, natives have a three-fold benefit: besides being resistant to pests, they are resistant to drought and disease, as well.
Fall bloom is also important, and Kay recommends “fall-blooming asters, coneflower, sunflowers, joe-pye weed, asters and goldenrod.” Butterflies will attach their chrysalis to the plant they’ve fed on, so be sure to leave some “untidy areas in your garden for them to overwinter,” as Kay suggests.
Butterflies like to feed on the minerals found in sand, so try leaving out a dish of sand brought back from one of your local beach excursions. They also appreciate some cut-up fruit, such as oranges or bananas, now and then.
At the end of the season, on or about Sept. 15, you can start to put away your feeders. Sometimes an injury or illness will delay the migration of a hummingbird, and because it has to fatten up for the journey, your feeder just might be its last resource. For that reason, leave one out for up to two weeks after the last sighting. ✦