Attracting Hummingbirds

Amy Dabbs,
County Extension Agent
Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service

A: Many people have a hard time keeping hummingbird feeders full and clean during the spring and summer months. Even if you opt out of providing a supplemental food source, you can actively garden to attract hummingbirds.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at feeder.
Ruby-throated hummingbird at feeder.
Alfred Viola, Northeastern University, Bugwood.org

Hummingbirds can move at up to twenty-seven miles an hour with wings that rotate like helicopter propellers, allowing them to fly in all directions, even backwards! They may visit over one thousand flowers each day and consume their weight in nectar daily. They must also rear their young who require a lot of protein to thrive. According to the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service, the keys to creating a hummingbird friendly habitat include nectar-producing plants, insects and water. Urban sprawl and loss of habitat make it tough for hummingbirds to find a meal at times, but gardeners can provide a welcome oasis. While feeders are great for supplementing the diet of these busy birds, they cannot replace their need for protein and nutrients.

The U.S. Forest Service encourages gardeners to plant native, showy flowers en masse to allow more feeding with less effort, much like visiting a feeder that never runs out! Besides, over 150 species of native plants depend on hummingbirds specifically for pollination. Many of these plants cannot be pollinated by bees or other insects, the hummingbird’s long beak and tongue are specially designed to reach the nectar of these native plants. They transfer the pollen on their foreheads while they move about the garden. Hummingbirds often return to the same gardens each year, remembering where they previously had a meal. Some favorite plants include: coral bean (Erythrina herbacea), native pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis), blazing star (Liatris spp. ), spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata), beardstongue (Penstemon spp.) , and any one of the many Salvias (Salvia greggii, S. guaranitica, and S. coccinea).

Most people know that red, tubular-shaped flowers attract annual visits from ruby-throated hummingbirds, but many never consider their need for insects. Purdue Extension wildlife specialists estimate that they consume up to 2,000 insects per day, eating mosquitoes, spiders, caterpillars, aphids and the eggs of various insects. Keep this mind when using pesticides in the garden. The SC Wildlife Federation warns that while consumption of common pesticides may harm the birds if ingested, they can also cause insect populations to drop, causing death by starvation.

To encourage beneficial insects for hummingbirds in the home landscape, try creating naturalized areas. Simply leave an unmowed strip of grass near a woodland edge. If a naturalized area isn’t possible, incorporate native wildflowers that will attract beneficial insects such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), bee balm (Monarda didyma), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum ) or black eyed susans (Rudbeckia spp.). Hummingbirds need clean water, preferring moving water which gardeners can provide with birdbaths or fountains.

To create a hummingbird haven, plant a variety of native vines, shrubs and trees that flower from February to November. Hummingbirds returning from Central and South America begin visiting our state flower, the Carolina jessamine, in late February or early March. They often remain here until November before flying south. Nectar from fall flowers helps them fuel up for the trip. Plant a progression of flowering plants. For example, plant Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) for spring, trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ) for summer and trumpet creeper (Bignonia radicans) as a fall nectar source. Include native trees, such as tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora).

Some great resources for choosing plants that attract hummingbirds include The Pollinator Partnership www.pollinator.org which provides zip code specific planting guides, and they also offer the free BeeSmart™ Pollinator Garden App.

To learn more about these incredible pollinating birds, check out the Clemson Extension Forestry & Natural Resources publication “A Haven for Hummingbirds” at http://www.clemson.edu/extension/natural_resources/wildlife/publications/haven_for_hummingbirds.html. 

The U.S. Forest Service’s “Gardening for Pollinators” site is a wealth of information and can be found at http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/gardening.shtml

A hummingbird nest, these intelligent birds use spider webs to glue their nests together.
A Hummingbird nest, these intelligent birds use spider webs to glue their nests together.
Photos by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service.

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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.