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Sweet Springtime

What better place to greet spring than the garden? And what better propagator of plants than the wispy hummingbird, flitting to and fro in an avian ballet, seeking out its favorite flowers. SUSAN BROWN grows her own.

Hummingbirds have a lot in common with people: they like to eat, they like to rest, and they like to stay clean. They’re also very different from us, of course. They can fly backward, and they weigh less than a nickel.

I’ve often watched in wonder as the tiny, iridescent birds flit around my garden, their hearts beating 1,200 times a minute. I have tried hummingbird feeders, but always grow tired of filling and cleaning them every few days. Plus, I never really grew accustomed to the idea of feeding sugar water to the hummers, because, well, it seemed unnatural and unhealthy for them. Now I know it is.

Red monkey flowers and purple sage grow in the author’s Ventura County garden.

While visiting the arboretum on the UC Santa Cruz campus a few years ago, I traversed a “Hummingbird Trail” laden with nectar-filled plants, shrubs, and trees—it felt a bit like walking through a fantasy movie; hummingbirds were literally everywhere. I stumbled upon an employee and inquired, quietly as to not disturb the birds and the photographers taking their pictures, how I could attract more hummers to my own yard without using an artificial feeder. The response was simple: plant the plants they like and they will come.

A hummingbird feeds from a cigar plant.

Since then, I’ve been on a mission to fill my garden with more of the native, nectar-producing plants that the birds prefer, such as hummingbird sage, “Hot Lips” salvia, and sticky monkey flower. Now, every spring and summer my yard resembles a hummingbird aviary: they hum, dash, feed, rest, bathe, and fight for territory, while I duck and run for cover. Okay, it’s not really that chaotic; I love the bird habitat I’ve created. And more importantly, I love the fact that I’m feeding them naturally. The sugar water diet they get from manmade feeders contains no pollen and can mess with their immune and reproductive systems.

“Sangria” Mexican Hyssop provides the nectar, while spiders in the tangle of juniper bushes behind it provide the protein. (Tip: Let webs flourish; hummers get much of their protein by eating small spiders and other insects.)

There are many native flowers that hummingbirds feed on, and while they prefer the color red (bees avoid red, leaving more nectar for the hummers) they will draw nectar from most any color. They especially love long tubular flowers that they can stick their narrow beaks into (and that bees can’t fit into). When hummers feed from my cigar plant with bright orange, downward pointing tubular flowers, they hover and lift the flower upward with the tip of their beak; when the flower is horizontal, the tubular corolla guides their bill to the sweet nectar. It’s an amazing process to witness.

Bi-color “Hot Lips” Salvia

Like bees, hummingbirds are critical for flower pollination—as the pollen collects on their heads and bills, they transfer it between flowers, a delicate system that helps plants to propagate. For being such tiny birds, hummers have a voracious appetite: a hummingbird needs to eat twice its body weight in nectar and insects every day, and can visit up to 2,000 flowers in a single day. They can also be quite territorial, so placing the plants they like all around your property rather than in one specific area will give several birds a chance to feed at the same time.

Plants of staggering heights will appeal to different hummers; some prefer taller stems, others want to be closer to the ground—a slight problem if you have a cat. My cat is old and lazy and wears a collar with three bells, which warns unsuspecting birds of approaching danger. Since some species of hummingbirds are year-round (known as residents) in Ventura County, while others migrate through our area on a route from Alaska to Mexico, it’s a good idea to grow plants that bloom at different times of the year in order to give them a constant supply of energy. An added benefit of growing a hummingbird garden is that the hummers tend to like the same plants we do: what’s visually appealing to us is a veritable feast to them.

“Hot Lips” Salvia

They are also drawn to the sound of tinkling water, and a fountain in the garden keeps their wings clean of sticky nectar. My fountain is surrounded by a decade-old pink geranium plant that blooms year-round. The hummers feed on the geranium, bathe in the fountain, and then rest on the plant’s leggy branches. Which brings up something else to consider: The tiny birds need perches or branches to rest on between feedings. Scattered throughout my property are trees of varying heights, upon which the birds rest and build their nests. Last summer, a female Anna’s hummingbird (a common variety in this area) adopted a garden stake as her own and perched on it every morning for around ten minutes before feeding, and returned several times during the day. Her routine hardly varied, and she had a definite pattern to her route. Little but ferocious, she would chase away any other bird that ventured into her feeding path.

To satisfy their need for protein, hummers eat small spiders, insects, and flies, so if your garden has spider webs, try not to remove them. A three-foot-high juniper hedge that runs the length of my backyard is covered with hundreds of webs that look untidy to say the least. In the morning when the webs are moist with dew, the hedge gives the yard an eerie, ominous appearance, but the hummingbirds love this area of my garden—they flit from flower to web, flower to web, eating insects and drawing nectar as I voyeuristically watch from my kitchen window, coffee cup in my hand, a content smile on my face.

04-01-2012

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