Saturday, March 30, 2013

Creating a Hummingbird Habitat

Hummingbird and columbine
(Josh Haas, Auduban Guides)
According to Journey North's map, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are pretty far  south, held up by cold weather--but they'll be in the Chicago region soon. I wrote the following short piece for a start-up magazine that never got going.
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In summer, I love to sit outside and watch the resident hummer. She might perch in the pagoda dogwood and preen, disappear, reappear by the scarlet runner beans, hover at the feeder, then zip up to the honey locust tree across the alley. It seems quite miraculous.

Hummers didn’t always frequent my backyard. Not one had been seen on my block for decades when, in 2008, my next door neighbor Muriel and I decided to try attracting them. We already had native-plant-based gardens; attracting hummers meant learning their needs and then adding hummer-specific elements. Muriel put out two feeders and we both planted tubular red flowers, which suit hummers’ long bills. To our delight, two ruby-throats showed up that August.

We were were practicing what evolutionary biologist Michael Rosenzweig calls “reconciliation ecology” in his book Win-win Ecology. Reconciliation ecology is “the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play.” Further inspired by citizen-science hummingbird project, we gave informational fliers to our neighbors. Several planted appropriate flowers and vines and one or two put up feeders. Our whole block has become hummingbird habitat. 

About ruby-throated hummingbirds
There are approximately 350 species of hummingbird, a bird native only to the Americas; only one species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, breeds in the upper Midwest.  Ruby-throats winter in southern Mexico and Central America and fly north in the spring, reaching the Chicago area in late April to early May. A remarkable part of their migration is their non-stop, eighteen-hour, approximately 500-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. They follow the same routes and tend to return to the same places, one reason maintaining habitat is very important.  They find suitable habitats by sight, which is why clumps of bright red flowers as well as feeders help attract them. 
Incubating (Dorothy Edgington, Journey North)

Ruby-throats often arrive too early for many flowers and survive by drinking sap and eating trapped insects at the holes yellow-bellied sapsuckers have drilled in trees. The females construct their tiny, walnut-sized nests on branches about twenty feet up. Once they’ve mated, the females lay two pea-sized eggs and raise their young alone. A mating cycle lasts about 45 days, and there can be two clutches a season. Their job done, males sometimes start back south as soon as July; females follow somewhat later and juveniles later still, up to the first frost.

Hummers can live up to twelve years, though the average is three to five years. To fuel their speedy metabolisms, ruby-throats must consume up to half their bodyweight in nectar each day, making use of at least thirty species of native plants as well as many garden flowers. At least nineteen native plants such as jewelweeds and columbines depend on hummers for pollination. Because nectar has no protein, small, soft-bodied insects and spiders make up one fourth of their diet. 

How to attract hummingbirds
Sometimes people will put up a feeder and then get disappointed when hummers don’t show up. But, like humans who can’t survive only on sports drinks,  hummers need more than sugar-water alone. If you develop a generally bird and insect pollinator-friendly garden habitat that includes hummingbird-specific features, you’ll probably have more success than planning only for hummingbirds. If you get your neighbors involved, you’ll strengthen the whole neighborhood ecosystem. That’s reconciliation ecology in action. 

What ruby-throats need
  • Places to perch and nest. Like many other species of backyard birds, hummers prefer layered edge habitats, with trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses and a water source. When planting choose at least a few hummingbird-attracting varieties. Hummers also find hanging baskets attractive. Plant flowers in groups of at least three or more of the same kind, and plan for a long bloom period by planting early, mid and late-blooming varieties of flowers.
  • Tubular red flowers. Native species often offer more nectar than nursery hybrids and single blossoms offer easier nectar access than double blossoms. See list here. Scented and composite flowers, while good for insects, aren’t as useful to hummers. Non-tubular flowers often don’t have as much nectar. Very diverse flower areas are best—the more species of flowers, and thus pollinators, the better!
  • Nest-building materials. Hummers use fuzzy plants such as cinnamon fern, pussy willow and “weeds” like thistle and dandelions for nests. Hummers use lichen from tree bark stuck on with spider silk to camouflage nests.
  • Feeder. Put out a hummingbird feeder in spring and keep it filled with sugar water until fall. Use a solution of one part sugar to four parts water which has been boiled for no more than two minutes. Clean and refill the feeder frequently (every two days in hot weather). Saucer-shaped feeders are easier to clean. Making extra sugar water solution to store in the fridge and keeping two feeders in rotation reduces work. There's no need to hang out more than one feeder: sugar water is not nutritious, so plantings should provide the most nectar.
  • No chemicals. It’s best not to use any insecticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers in your yard (this includes chemical lawn care). A healthy garden ecosystem starts with living soil, nourished by organic material, that supports a complex, dynamic web of life: beautiful in the elegant way it naturally functions, as well as the way it looks.

    Related Posts
    How Gardening is Not Writing
    Hummingbird Facts and Nature Rants
    Hummingbird Sightings

2 comments:

Eric Gyllenhaal said...

Hi, I'm Eric, the Oak Park birder who had a Rufous Hummingbird spend part of a winter in his backyard a few years ago, I just wanted to let you know that on Wednesday, June 4, 2014, I saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird flying between two backyards on either side of Harvard, just west of Wenonah. Do you think it was one of yours? I was my first Oak Park hummer of 2014.
Thanks,
Eric
P.S. Here's a link to a page that summarizes my bird observations in south Oak Park over the past few years: http://neighborhoodnature.wordpress.com/about/our-ebird-data-for-south-oak-park/

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Eric,
Nice to hear from you and thanks for the link. I haven't seen any hummers yet this summer. Lucky you.