Hummingbirds in the Garden

Female red-tailed comet at horsechestnut (Aesculus sp.) flowers in La Cumbre, Córdoba, Argentina (L), swallow-tailed hummingbird at mallow near Santo Antônio do Retiro, Brazil (LC), female green-tailed trainbearer in garden in Otavalo, Ecuador (C), female purple-throated mountain gem at Trogon Lodge, Costa Rica (RC) and male crowned wood nymph near Uvita, Costa Rica (R).

There are about 330 species of hummingbirds, the second largest family of birds (Trochilidae), all native to the Americas from south central Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and the Caribbean, with the greatest species diversity found in tropical and subtropical Central and the northern Andes of South America. The common name comes from the sound created by wings beating in a figure-8 pattern at such high frequencies (up to 80 beats per second) they are audible to humans. These small birds are able to hover, travel up to over 30 miles per hour, and fly backwards and even upside down. Most species are only 3-5 inches long, with the smallest, the bee hummingbird, at only 2 inches long and less than an ounce in weight. Most have plumage with iridescent colors resulting from a combination of pigmentation and refraction from prism-like cells in the upper layers of the feathers.

Male Anna’s hummingbird, El Cajon, California (L); all others in Costa Rica: male green violet-eared hummingbird (LC), male green-crowned brilliant (C), male purple-throated mountain gem (RC) and violet sabrewing (R).

These tiny creatures have an extremely high metabolism, with a heart rate up to 1,260 beats per minute and 250 breaths per minute. This is necessary to support such rapid wingbeats during hovering and fast forward flight, and therefore they need tremendous amounts of food to sustain themselves. To conserve energy they can enter a state of torpor – similar to hibernation, where their temperature, heart rate and breathing rate decreases dramatically and metabolic rate slows to 1/15 of its normal rate – at night or when food is scarce. Unlike most animals, they are able to quickly make use of ingested sugars to fuel their flight muscles and all depend on flower nectar to fuel their high metabolism, reserving their limited fat reserves for overnight fasting and migratory flights. They do feed on small insects in flight or on leaves and spiders to obtain protein and other nutrients.

Hummingbird bills vary from short and straight to long and curved, such as in these examples of a female scintillant hummingbird, Costa Rica (L), male glistening bellied emerald, Argentina (LC), female magnificent hummingbird, Costa Rica (C), green violet-ear, Costa Rica (RC) and green hermit, Costa Rica (R).

Hummingbirds and nectar-rich plants co-evolved over millions of years from the swifts in South America, with the nine major groups of these specialized nectarivores having a diversity of bill lengths and shapes that coordinate with specific flower shapes. Long bills allow the birds to probe deep into flowers with long corollae; short, sharp bills evolved for feeding from flowers with short corollae and piercing the bases of longer ones; curved bills are adapted to extracting nectar from curved corollae. The many different flower and bill shapes allow many hummingbird species to coexist in a particular region. When feeding on nectar, the bill opens slightly, with the long, extendable tongue darting in and out inside the flower to rapidly lap up the nectar. Plants that are hummingbird-pollinated often have flowers in shades of red or orange, even though the birds will feed on tubular flowers of other colors.

Coppery-headed emerald at feeder at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica.

These types of flowers generally do not reflect near-ultra-violet wavelengths that act as landing guides for insect pollinators. They also tend to produce relatively weak nectar with a high proportion of sucrose compared to insect-pollinated plants that tend to produce more concentrated nectar composed primarily of fructose and glucose. The sugar concentration and composition of nectar varies greatly across plant species and over time, usually in the 10 to 35% range (from as weak as 10:1 to as strong as 1:1, although both of the extremes are rare, with an average sugar content close to 3:1). Feeders filled with sugar water (white granulated sugar at a 3:1 to 4:1 water to sugar ratio) can provide a reliable food source when flower blossoms are not abundant. Weaker solutions (such as 4:1 or 5:1) are best during hot, dry weather when the birds need more water.

Hummingbirds adapt readily to human habitation and nearly all species will visit feeders. They will also nest in protected locations on loops of chain, wire, cords and other man-made structures even though normally they would construct their nest in a deciduous or coniferous tree or shrub.

Hummingbird nests are made from hairs and plant down in the crotch of a tree branch and decorated with lichens (L and LC) or moss (RC), but birds will nest in other spots, like this Anna’s on the top of wind chimes on a patio (R).

Male ruby-throated hummingbird at feeder.

There is only one common hummingbird species in the Midwest, the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), which breeds from the southeastern US to Ontario, Canada (a few other species can occasionally be seen, but do not breed east of the Mississippi). This small (3 to 3.5 inch long) solitary hummingbird is green with gray-white underparts and the smaller males have an iridescent red gorget (throat patch) that appears dull black when not oriented at the right angle. They have a slender, straight to slightly downcurved bill. They live in semi-open habitats such as suburban backyards, parks, gardens, meadows, open woodlands, and forest edges.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird at Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’.

Females build a nest of plant fibers, bud scales, and grass tied together with spider webs camouflaged with lichens or dead leaves and lined with plant down (such as dandelion or thistle down) or animal hair on a small, downward-sloping tree branch, then incubates the two white eggs and feeds the young (mainly insects) by herself. They produce one to two broods each summer. Both males and females are territorial, aggressively attacking and chasing other hummingbirds in their feeding territory.

This species migrates annually to spend the winter in rather open or dry tropical scrub in southern Florida or Texas, Mexico, or Central America. In late summer and fall, the ruby-throated hummingbird gains as much as 100% of its body weight in order to be able to fly across the Gulf of Mexico on a nonstop flight during its annual migration from North America to overwintering areas. The males leave first, sometimes beginning their migration by early August.

Colorful flowers and feeders encouraged this family of ruby-throated hummingbirds to stay for the season.

The best way to encourage these small birds to remain in a landscape is to grow a diversity of nectar-producing flowers they prefer and have feeders as a supplement especially when blooms are scarce. In addition to having staggered bloom times to have a food source for the entire season, a source of water and trees or tall shrubs for nesting and perching will encourage them to stay. Avoid using pesticides that would indiscriminately kill the small insects these birds feed on. Flowers don’t have to be planted just in the garden, as hummingbirds will readily visit flowers in containers, too.

Salvia coccinea is highly attractive to hummingbirds.

I usually have some self-seeded Texas or scarlet salvia (Salvia coccinea) that I allow to grow in the containers of other plants in my greenhouse. I can then move those that are blooming in early spring outside before anything is flowering in my yard for the early arrivals. Once hummingbirds discover a patch of flowers, they are likely to continue visiting throughout the season and will usually return the following year. Gardens planted with all hummingbird plants will attract more birds, but even putting in just a few highly attractive plants in existing gardens will encourage the birds to visit.

Ruby-throated hummingbird feeding on Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’.

Although they show a slight preference for red, orange, and bright pink tubular flowers, there are many others they will feed on just as readily, such as ‘Black and Blue’ salvia (Salvia guaranitica). Hummingbirds will visit a LOT of different plants, including many not on their list of favorites (and just because a plant is on the list doesn’t mean it will utilize that plant in all areas). Keep in mind that, in general, single flowers are better than double flowers; some cultivars or hybrids may have much less nectar than the species; and patches of flowers tend to be better than individual plants spaced widely throughout a landscape. The following list is a compilation from many sources of common plants that are attractive to hummingbirds, but there are many more plants that ruby-throated hummingbird will feed on besides these. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are considered by many to be the very best plants to grow in the Midwest as hummingbird plants.

Species Plant type
Agastache rupestris Tender perennial grown as an annual
Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern red columbine
Native perennial
Asclepias spp. esp. currasavica, but also A. syriaca, common milkweed and others Annual and native perennials
Buddleia davidii, butterfly bush Marginally hardy perennial in most of WI
Campsis radicans, trumpet vine Native woody vine
Canna indica, canna Tender perennial grown as an annual
Cleome hassleriana, spider flower Annual
*Cuphea spp., including C. schumanii, C. llavea, and hybrids, esp. ‘David Verity’ and others Tender perennial grown as an annual
Delphinium exaltatum, perennial larkspur Native perennial (to zone 5)
Digitalis grandiflora, yellow foxglove Perennial
Digitalis x mertonensis, strawberry foxglove Short-lived perennial
Digitalis purpurea, common foxglove Biennial

Ruby-throated hummingbirds feeding on tropical milkweed, Asclepias currasavica (L), bat-faced cuphea, Cuphea llavea (LC), Cuphea ‘David Verity’ (RC) and yellow foxglove, Digitalis grandiflora (R).

Fuchsia triphylla ‘Gartenmeister’ Tender perennial grown as an annual
Heuchera sanguinea, coral bells Native perennial
Hibiscus syriacus, Rose of Sharon Marginally hardy perennial in most of WI
Hosta Perennial
Impatiens capensis, jewelweed (red only, yellow is not attractive) Native annual
Ipomoea coccinea, red morning glory Tender perennial grown as an annual
Ipomoea sloteri, cardinal climber Tender perennial grown as an annual
Ipomopsis rubra, Spanish larkspur Tender perennial grown as an annual
Justicia brandegeana, shrimp plant Tender perennial grown as an annual
Kniphofia uvaria, red hot poker Marginally hardy perennial in most of WI
Lantana camara and hybrids, especially red ones Tender perennial grown as an annual
*Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower Native perennial
Lobelia siphilitica, great blue lobelia Native perennial
*Lonicera sempervirens, coral honeysuckle Native woody plant
*Monarda didyma, beebalm Native perennial
Nepeta spp., catmint Perennial
Penstemon spp. Annuals and perennials

Rubythroated hummingbird feeding on cardinal climber (L), Anna’s hummingbird feeding on red beebalm (C), and Allen’s hummingbird feeding on penstemon (R).

Phaseolus coccineus, scarlet runner bean Annual vine
Phlox paniculata (tall garden types) Perennial
Salvia azurea Southeastern US native perennial (zone 5)
*Salvia coccinea, Texas or scarlet sage Tender perennial grown as an annual
Salvia elegans, pineapple sage (but rarely blooms in upper Midwest before the ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate south for the winter) Tender perennial grown as an annual
Salvia exserta, Bolivian sage Annual
Salvia greggi ‘Hot Lips’, ‘Navajo Red’ and others Tender perennial grown as an annual
*Salvia guaranitica, blue anise sage Tender perennial grown as an annual
Salvia splendens Tender perennial grown as an annual
Salvia hybrids (incl. ‘Indigo Spires’, ‘Phyllis Fancy’; ‘Purple Majesty’ and many others) Tender perennial grown as an annual

Salvia coccinea ‘Coral Nymph’ (L), S. elegans (LC), S. greggi ‘Hot Lips’ (RC) and S. splendens, mixed cultivars (R).

Tithonia rotundifolia, Mexican Sunflower Annual
Verbena spp. and hybrids Annual
Weigela florida Native woody plant
Zinnia elegans, some tall red or orange varieties Annual

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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39 comments

  1. I am thrilled every time one shows up at my feeder. I have tried to plant plants that will encourage them to come. Last year, I had a next and was so excited!

  2. I didn’t know hummingbirds needed running water or mist to clean off sticky nectar. We’ll be sure to find a way to add this next summer. Great article.

  3. People in our area, which is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, have reported seeing way more hummingbirds this year than ever before. This is true at our house as well. Maybe we’re getting them up north instead of other areas for some reason. (Weather?) Also I noticed hummers feeding on a couple of basil plants that had flowered. I stopped trimming a few, so they’d have more food before they left us this Fall.

  4. Thanks for the plant list! I will use that next year to try to attract more hummingbirds to my yard. I have enjoyed the several that I have seen this summer. I was surprised to learn that there are over 300 species of hummingbirds, but there is only one kind in the Midwest, the ruby- throated hummingbird. I was also surprised to learn that they can fly more than 30 miles per hour, and have a heart rate up to 1260 beats per minute and 250 breaths per minute.

  5. These birds are fascinating! I have been putting out feeders for a few years. Every year the hummingbird population at my feeders has grown. Next Spring I am planting a new, small flower bed and will use the plant list to choose from.

  6. I have so many hummingbirds this year in both my front and back yards. Some years, I’ve not seen one. I’ve been trying to get photos of them, but no luck! Their nests look like works of art. I didn’t know they could fly upside down.

  7. Great article. This year my Honeysuckle didn’t flower and the Hummingbirds were missing! At least I got good ideas about what else to plant to attract Hummingbirds in addition to supplemental feeders.

    Love the description of the nest , made out of fibers,grass and tied together by spider webs !

  8. Although I didn’t see any hummingbirds on the feeder this year, they really seemed to like the cardinal flowers and honeysuckle. I appreciated the plant list in this article as I’m going to get more plants to attract the hummingbirds.

  9. I really appreciated seeing the list of plants that attract hummingbirds. I have hibiscus in containers this year and have hummingbirds in my yard for the first time! It’s interesting to read that they are attracted most to red and orange. That explains why we only see them visiting the red hibiscus and not the yellow.

  10. The plant list provided is very helpful. I have many of these but plan to add more.
    Have noticed the hummingbirds peeking in my window to watch me, usually if I have a bright colored shirt on or if a feeder has run low.

  11. I love having hummingbirds in our yard. When we moved from Madison I was very sad to be leaving my little group of hummingbirds that we had each year. We moved into a house in Milwaukee that was not very hummingbird or butterfly friendly and I’ve spent the last several years slowly removing plants and replacing them with other plants. The last two years we have seen three pairs of hummingbirds coming regularly to our feeders. I have an upper deck that is completely surrounded with 8 hummingbird feeders so if they don’t find enough in the garden they join us on the upper deck where I can watch them while enjoying a cup of coffee or wine. 🙂

  12. I didn’t know we only had one common species of hummingbird in midwest. With just a few different plants on the list in pots hummingbirds visit my backyard.

  13. Our gardens have hummingbirds darting in and out of the flower blossoms all summer long. They seem to really enjoy the Hosta blossoms, which I always leave especially for the hummingbirds although some gardeners feel leaving the stalks and blossoms create untidy appearance – they really are natural feeders for our hungry little visitors. It was interesting to read about placing containers of overripe fruit or banana peels near a feeder to attract the tiny fruit flies they need in their diet for protein, and their need for shallow running water or mist to counter the sticky nectar they collect. Will be looking for solar powered fountains to accommodate the hummingbirds.

  14. The list of flowers to attract hummingbirds is so helpful. I have seen several this summer and would love to attract more next year. Great information.

  15. We have a closed in front porch facing our front yard. We have many of our summer meals there and can enjoy all the nature of our front yard. To illustrate the Hummingbird draw to color. We have a planter inside with an orange gods eye and quite often they will hover outside the window trying to figure out how to get to it.

  16. (These are) fascinating creatures….like the idea of having a pot of flowers early in spring to “cement” their arrival and placement.

  17. I have a lot of Hummingbird preferred flowers in my yard, plus keep an 8 ounce hummingbird feeder filled all the time. I actually bought a 2nd 8 ounce feeder, so I would have one ready to put out, when the first one was getting low. I did not know about the 3:1 ratio, the folks at “Wild Birds Unlimited” only recommended the 4:1 ratio of water and sugar. I will now change my practice. Hummingbirds seem to be a true miracle of nature.

  18. I did not know that there are 330 species of hummingbirds! I had heard in the past that it’s good to do feedee nectar at a stronger 3:1 ratio in Spring to help the birds during migration, and have done that then switched to 4:1 during the Summer. I did not know that it could even be 5:1 during hot weather to give them more water.

  19. I was glad to find the list of plants hummingbirds prefer. I have not planted a lot of things to specifically attract hummingbirds in the past. However, I just saw a hummingbird in my garden on my perennial sweet peas and wanted to add something else to attract them next year.

  20. My dad used to have several bird feeders and a couple of hummingbirds feeders in his backyard. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a big dragonfly. The many hosta plants in the garden probably kept them coming back as well. I never spotted a nest though. They are fun to watch.

  21. This year I placed 5 hummingbird feeders one foot away from one another and I continually filled the containers at 3:1 ratio of sugar and water. In addition, the hanging plants I chose were red velvet geraniums. There seemed to be at least 10 hummingbirds daily. After reading this article I know, “weaker solutions (such as 4:1 or 5:1) are best during hot, dry weather when the birds need more water.”

  22. I suspect everyone loves seeing hummingbirds. My favorite plant is the black/blue salvia to attract them to my deck. I always include a branch for perching. Some varieties of feeders do work better than others. The food is so easy to make and we change it out every 4th day. It’s always a surprise to find a nest and even if it’s empty the size of the nest is surprising small. Their buzz can be felt when they feed. It has been a challenge keeping the raccoons from tipping my feeders. It’s worth taking down feeders each night just to know the hummingbirds will be back during the day.

  23. I love to grow plants that the hummingbirds love to make them come and stay in the area. I also feed nectar at the ratio of 4:1. I did not realize that I could feed 5:1 in hot weather. I am constantly filling the feeders at my house and also fill about 10 feeders in the local community gardens.

  24. I had no idea the hummingbird nectar could be changed depending on need! I have never deviated from the 4 to 1 ratio! I may try the other ratios depending on weather. Great article.

  25. Good article with a great list of plants to have handy for extending the bloom time to keep hummers around

  26. After reading this article I switched from already made nectar to boiled water and sugar. We will see how this makes a difference. Great article.

  27. We found a nest that had fallen from a broken branch in our yard. I had suspected it was a hummingbird nest, now I know for sure it was. I also have always wanted to plant some foxgloves, now I really do along with some salvias. Great article. I love the little birds, watching them dive bomb each other trying to get to the feeder we have.

  28. Both my husband and I enjoy the hummers. I plant many different flowers, especially the salvias and hostas. Every year we feed them and photograph them. Guest love to sit on the deck and watch how they operate the feeds to get their food.
    Our trip to Costa Rica blew us away with the many different species. Their colors were magnificent something everyone should see once in their lives. I will be one of those trips you will never forget for the flora and the nature they have.
    I still have not seen a nest but I will keep looking. Its probably right under my nose.

  29. This hummingbird article is another keeper from Susan Mahr. I have an abundance of hostas and milkweed and do see the Ruby Throated variety here. They are certainly acrobatic and fun to watch!

  30. Found the article interesting. And happy to find that the red zinnias, though not part of the preferred list, I have in a pot are also on the list of plants that hummingbirds are attracted to. I will have to be sure that I use them again in future potted arrangements. The birds are great fun and interesting to watch.

  31. This is a great article on hummingbirds. I already have several plants, in my garden, that are on the preferred list. Looking forward to adding more. The hummingbirds are so much fun to watch.

  32. I love watching hummingbirds for their grace. We’ve had a very active feeder at our cottage in Door Co. in northeast WI for the last several years.

    This year our feeder was beset by ants crawling down from the gutter despite no obvious colony up there. The hummingbirds would approach and then leave without feeding. I wanted to share a useful adaptation I found that solved the problem – the addition of an “ant moat” between the hook and the feeder. It’s a simple hanging bowl that holds water and ants can’t traverse it. Cheap, too! (There are multiple manufacturers making different models; just Google “ant moat for hummingbird feeder.” )

  33. Lots of good information on providing for these tiny birds. I plan on taking the flower list to my local vendor to see how many of them I can add to my garden. Thank you.

  34. I grow and plant lots of different flowers to attract these funny little birds. They come to the annuals as well as a lot of my perennials. They especially seem to like coral bells (heuchera), my deadnettle (lamium) and even the flowers from my hostas. Of course there favorite is the trumpet vine and it is fun to watch them as they actually bury themselves in those large, trumpet shaped flowers to get to the nectar. I also have several nectar feeders for them and my friends are always amazed that I can have up to 20-24 hummingbirds fighting over the two nectar feeders closest to my large kitchen window. They say that they could watch them for hours. And listening to them scold and “chitter” is part of the fun, too.

  35. Timely article. I was just thinking I have not noticed as many hummingbirds In my gardens as usual. Has anyone else noticed this? Also, I didn’t realize hummingbirds sometimes eat insects and leaves. This reminds me of the plight of bats. Hope, something isn’t happening to these beautiful creatures.

  36. Thank you for the gardening tips with great information about types of flowers. We need to keep a continual supply going all season and concentrate on species plants.
    Linda

  37. Great reminder of how having a diversity of flowers with varied bloom types and times can help provide nourishment for our garden wildlife. Excellent pictures for identification.

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