Q&A: Attracting Hummingbirds

Question: Can you give me some planting ideas and other tips for attracting hummingbirds to my garden?

Answer: There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds, all of which live in the Western Hemisphere, and 16 of which live in or visit the United States and Canada. The majority of species live in the tropics, but some can be seen as far north as Alaska and as far south as Cape Horn, in all kinds of habitats. No matter where they live, hummingbirds require copious amounts of nectar from flowers each day. The way they move their wings is different than other birds and not very efficient, so they quickly burn off what they ingest. On a given day, a hummingbird must eat about 50 percent of its weight in sugar. They also eat insects for protein. They can perch, but they can’t walk well at all.

The first way to attract hummingbirds to your garden is to provide them with nectar they can easily drink. This may be in a hummingbird feeder or, better yet, in the form of hummingbird-friendly flowers. Appropriate flowers will have a distinctive shape and color and will bloom when hummingbirds need them.

Hummingbirds will drink from any color flower once they learn that they are a source of nectar. They do seem to prefer red or orange blooms, perhaps because they see red tones well while their major competitors for nectar, insects, do not. Therefore red flowers are more likely to be full of nectar when a bird visits it. Red may also show up against a green background better than other colors, drawing migrating birds to it like a magnet.

Hummingbirds find it easiest to sip nectar from flowers with a long tubular form that points outward rather than hanging straight down. They can hover in front of such a flower and insert their long beak and tongue to reach the nectar. They also prefer larger flowers because these can hold more nectar, allowing the bird to fill itself in fewer visits.

Considering these points, here’s a list of common hummingbird plants. Keep in mind the plants will need to be suited to your garden’s conditions. You should also check that they aren’t invasive in your area. Plants native to your area may be most successful in attracting the hummingbirds in your region, since they’ll be more familiar than exotic species. Hummers are fast learners, though, and will happily revisit a “new” flower once they try it.

Perennials for colder regions (Zone 6 and colder)
Bee balm (Monarda spp.)
Salvia, sage (Salvia spp.)
Agastache spp.
Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Beardstongue (Penstemon spp.)
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moescheutos)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Morning glories (Ipomoea spp.)
Columbines (Aquilegia spp.)

Perennials for warmer regions (Zone 7 and warmer)
Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans)
Cross vine (Bignonia capreolata)
Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis)
Yellow bells (Tecoma stans)
Mexican cardinal flower (Lobelia laxiflora)
Fuchsia spp.
California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica)
Desert honeysuckle (Anisacanthus thurberi)
Flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii)
Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia californica)
Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana)

For advice in setting up a hummingbird feeder to supplement the flowers in your garden, see this page by the Hummingbird Society. Hummers will not visit feeders or flowers as often while they are nesting, because they are busy feeding insects to their babies. You’ll see more of them once nesting season (usually spring/early summer) ends, and while they migrate in the fall.

Hummingbirds are very territorial and aggressive against other hummers (and other kinds of birds). Therefore to attract the most hummingbirds to your garden, you need to spread hummer flowers and feeders throughout the yard. Otherwise they will fight over that one patch of bee balm.

Hummingbirds also need places to rest and nest. They use trees or shrubs, or in arid climates, cacti.

Hummingbirds require water to keep themselves clean. If their feathers become too sticky with nectar, they can’t fly. They prefer shallow, moving water, such as in a shallow birdbath with a fountain that circulates the water. Even a birdbath with no fountain, just set slightly askew so that some water can flow over the side as a bird splashes in it, would be appreciated. Hummers also like fountains that spray straight up in the air; they’ll flit in and out to “take a shower.” Place any water feature in a clearing and mount it at least four feet above ground, to protect the birds from cats.

Sources: The Hummingbird Society, Wild Birds Unlimited, National Audubon Society

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