For creatures that weigh less than a nickel, yet can flap their wings 70 to 80 times per second and fly up to 30 miles an hour, there’s no doubt hummingbirds are mighty little things. Their energy secret? Sugar, and plenty of it. Hummingbirds need to consume two-thirds of their weight in sugar each day to keep themselves going strong.
This constant need to consume nectar, whether from nature or man-made, is the reason these sweet looking birds can be quite aggressive when competing at a feeder or among desirable flowers.
“They can be mean little devils,” says Deedy Wright, a member of the Lindheimer Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT). “They particularly like the red sage in my yard. One day I noticed there was a small hummingbird—it might have been a baby—and two larger ones that were going after it. I thought I might scatter them a bit by waving my arms and those little buggers came at me! I was in the way of them getting the little bird out of their territory.”
Wright, who is well versed in the ways of hummingbirds, says their drive to get enough nourishment is what makes them so territorial. Unlike other birds, it’s unusual to see hummers share a feeder, or any food source, at the same time. To help increase the odds of bringing hummers to your home this year, you might consider planting a hummingbird garden.
Start Your Garden with Natives
While there are a number of plants that are hummingbird favorites, Wright suggests you start with Texas native plants. They’re easier to grow and take care of because they’re naturally adapted to local conditions. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) recommends them, too, because non-natives can become invasive and out-compete the natives. Just as important, native plants often make more nectar than cultivated hybrids.
“The ideal garden would be surrounded by trees five to 15 feet tall that would provide shelter and nesting areas,” Wright says.
“An open area inside the trees would give the birds space to fly. It would also provide an ideal location for flowering plants that would o er blooms year-round, supply nectar and be a source for protein foods like small insects and spiders that the baby birds need. Feeders with hummingbird solution could serve as a dietary supplement for energy.”
She says favorite plants include trumpet-shaped flowers that can be yellow and orange as well as red. Plants with large, flat flower heads, often yellow or blue, are good for attracting insects. The most important thing to remember, however, is to NOT use insecticides.
“The poisons will reduce the protein foods the baby birds need, while contaminating the primary energy source: the flowers,” Wright explains. “By using proper gardening techniques—most of which I learned over the years from the Native Plant Society—gardens will typically balance themselves after a while, reducing the need for poisons.”
Feeders are optional in a garden, but may be the only way to go depending on your situation. If so, there are a lot of dos and don’ts if you’re serious about helping hummers thrive. The most important is knowing that feeders need constant TLC, especially when it’s hot outside.
“If you’re not going to be diligent about keeping feeders clean and filled with fresh sugar-water solution, you’ll do more harm than good,” Wright says. “It’s best to clean and rinse the feeders daily, but you can go two to four days during hot weather and maybe a day or two longer in cooler weather. Otherwise, the hummers will get sick from mold.”
And just like the myth of “only red flowers,” hummers don’t need red food coloring in their solution. In fact, it might even be bad for them.
You can expect to see hummingbirds migrate through our area in April, returning again in September. But don’t put those feeders away. Some hummingbirds, like the Rufous, are in the area year-round.
For more information on hummingbirds in our area, Wright recommends Hummingbirds of Texas by C. Shackelford, M. Lindsay, and Mark Klym (Texas A&M Press). Information is also available by searching the TPWD website.
Good to Know
Only use plain white sugar— never honey. Boil the water and sugar together for one to two minutes to help delay fermentation and ensure a quality solution. Allow to cool before pouring into your feeder. Don’t use red food coloring; it’s not necessary to attract hummers and may be bad for their health.