Tips For Turning Your Backyard Into a Hummingbird Habitat

by Steve Peek

Hummingbirds notoriously have a high wing-beat rate, and it is its fast wing-beat rate that generates the hum for which the hummingbird is named.

High Metabolism Rate

The largest of hummingbirds, the Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas), grow to be about 24g and have an average wing-beat rate of 8-10 beats per second. Mid-sized hummingbirds, the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), grow to weigh about 3g and beat their wings at a rate of 20-25 beats per second. The smallest species of hummingbirds, the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), only grow to approximately 1.8g, and yet they beat their wings at about 70 beats per second.

One might wonder how a hummingbird could generate such an incredibly fast wing-beat rate, but this kind of metabolism is very similar to the energy derived by giving a three-year-old child a can of Mountain Dew to drink. The high sugar-intake taken by the child creates a situation where the child seems to bounce off the walls. Well, the same thing happens with the hummingbird too.

Each day, hummingbirds of all species consume more than the equivalent of their own body weight in nectar, which has an average sugar content of 25%. This high daily sugar-intake results in an extremely high metabolism rate for these tiny birds - the highest in all of the animal kingdom. According to a 2001 book, "The Birds of Ecuador volume 2 - Field Guide", written by Robert S. Ridgely and Paul G. Greenfield, a hummingbirds' heart beat has been measured as high as 1260 beats per minute!

Interestingly, other organisms that metabolize at a rate equal to the hummingbird typically have a very short-lifespan. But, hummingbirds have lived in captivity for up to 17 years.

Flower Pollination

It has been estimated that the average hummingbird will visit 100 flowers per day, pollinating many flowers as they go. But with most flower species, the hummingbird has to compete directly with bees and wasps for access to the nectar.

Interestingly, bees and hummingbirds tend to avoid flowers that have a sugar-ratio in the range of 15%, which is average for most flowers. Instead, bees and hummingbirds tend to only pollinate flowers that have the higher 25% sugar content in the nectar.

Most of the flowers that hummingbirds pollinate are red, bright pink and orange in color. An interesting twist in this story is that hummingbirds can view wavelengths into the near ultra-violet. Insect-pollinated flowers tend to reflect certain wavelengths, which tip off the insects that those flowers are inviting the insects to visit. But the flower species that hummingbirds typically pollinate do not reflect the same wavelengths as other flower species do, which in effects makes those flowers invisible to passing insects.

Of course, while the hummingbirds need to visit flowers to obtain the sugars they need to properly metabolize energy for flight, nectar does not provide enough nutrients to ensure good health. Hummingbirds meet their dietary needs for protein, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, etc. by preying on insects and spiders, especially when they are feeding young.

Range Of The Species

Until recently, it was believed that hummingbirds were strictly an American bird, ranging from Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. But in 2004, Dr. Gerald Mayr, a paleornithologist at the famed Senckenberg museum in Germany, found a 30-million year old hummingbird fossil that had been unearthed in a dig near Heidelberg, Germany.

The majority of the 325-340 species of hummingbirds reside in warm tropical areas of Central and South America. But those species that can be found on the southern tip of South America and those species that take up residence in North America are typically migratory birds.

While hummingbirds are typically at rest, except when feeding, hummingbirds are known to cross great bodies of water, including the Gulf of Mexico. That is the reason why many hummingbird species can also be found in many Caribbean islands.

Common North American Species

Although 17 hummingbird species have been known to nest in North America, only a few are considered common. Most frequently seen in North America are the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the Black-chinned Hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird, the Anna's Hummingbird, the Broad-tailed hummingbird, and the Calliope hummingbird. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is most frequently found east of the Mississippi River. The Black-chinned Hummingbird is most often found in the western United States. The Rufous Hummingbird is found most often in the Northwest all the way to Alaska. The Anna's Hummingbird is common from southern California to southern Arizona and north to southwestern British Columbia. The Broad-tailed hummingbird is common in the spring and summer in higher elevations from Arizona north to the Canadian border. And the Calliope hummingbird is found through-out the west except for the Southwest and the Pacific Coast.

Attracting Hummingbirds To Your Garden

In order to attract hummingbirds to your garden you must provide them the nectar producing flowers that they desire. There are quite a variety of blooming plants and you will want ones specific to where you live so do a little research for "hummingbird flowers" in your area and most likely your local nursery will offer them. As a final touch add a couple of pretty hummingbird feeders and you are set.

Interestingly, the combination of people planting winter flower gardens and providing hummingbird feeders has encouraged more hummingbirds to make North America their year-around homes in the temperate areas along the Gulf and Pacific coasts.

You will want to be very selective when picking a hummingbird feeder as many models simply do not do this beautiful bird justice. The fact is that many hummingbird feeders force the hummingbirds to compete with bees, wasps, ants, orioles, woodpeckers, and other animals for access to the sugar water. Bees, wasps and ants can get trapped in some types of feeders and die inside which of course ruins the nectar.

Protecting The Health Of Your Hummingbirds

Studies have shown the best formula for sugar water to be one cup of "white granulated sugar only" to four cups of water, mixed and placed into the feeder. The feeder should be emptied and washed with dish soap and hot water at least once per week, to prevent harmful bacteria build-up or soured sugar water.

For the health of your neighborhood hummingbirds, you should never use any raw sugars, brown sugar, powdered sugar, honey, or any additives in your sugar water mix. All contain other elements that will be to the detriment of any hummingbirds consuming these products.

Commercial "hummingbird food" products have not been studied at length, but early studies with laboratory animals indicate that preservatives, artificial flavors, and food coloring cause disease and premature mortality, when it is consumed in large amounts. So, it is strongly recommended that you do not add red food coloring to your sugar water mix. Scientists also recommend that you do not need to buy any "hummingbird food" that has "additional nutrients" in it, because hummingbirds get all of the nutrients that they need in the insects that they eat.

Selecting A Good Hummingbird Feeder

There are a number of companies providing hummingbird feeders in the marketplace. But for the benefit of your neighborhood birds, you should try to keep an eye to finding a feeder that has certain features and benefits.

Remember, your local birds are competing with bees, wasps and ants for access to the food in your feeder. So, it is advantageous when you can find a feeder that is designed to restrict these insects from gaining access to the sugar water mix.

Most feeders have some red or orange colorations, because these colors attract hummingbirds. But, make sure that the feeders you buy do not have any yellow parts on the feeder itself, because bees are attracted to the color yellow. Even if you can block the bees from gaining access to the feeder, the yellow will attract the bees to the feeder, and the bees will frequently drive away the hummingbirds.

Make sure that any feeder you own does not leak sugar water onto the ground or the outside of the unit, because once again, you should desire to keep bees, wasps and other pests away from your feeders.

The point of a feeder is to attract the right kind of visitors, not the wrong kinds. If your hummingbird feeder attracts the wrong kind of visitor, the birds will have their feeding experience ruined, and you may be finding yourself wrestling with too many pests in your environment too.

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