COLUMN | Milkweed + Honey: Support your local hummingbirds

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A flash of red, the glint of gray. Up in the sky! Look! It’s Superman … It’s a plane … It’s a hummingbird!

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Add the right features to your yard and you can sit back like Patti Mayonnaise here and watch the hummingbirds flicker and flit around. 

Everybody loves to spot these wee birds whizzing by faster than a speeding bullet. In Western Oregon and Washington, we have two main species: Anna’s hummingbirds reside here year-round, while Rufous hummingbirds migrate here in early summer. Anna’s shine in green and gray, the males bejeweled with fuchsia crowns. Rufous is another word for reddish-brown, and the birds reflect that: the males are rufous with green patches and white chests, while the females are paler green, orange, and white. An avid birder may spot a handful of other species in the Portland area.

Like me, these tiny fliers love to snack every 10 minutes or so, but instead of shuffling over to the cupboard, they visit more than a thousand flowers daily. Their Fitbit stats must be incredible. They sip sweet nectar with their freakish tongues and nosh on itsy bitsy bugs like gnats and aphids. Once they find a favorite canteen, they may defend it aggressively against other birds.

Want to witness these ravenous wonders on your backyard or balcony? There are two methods.

FEED THE BIRDS

Like many folks, I began my avian appreciation journey with a red glass sugar-water feeder. I put one outside my kitchen window at a rental, which had no flowering plants in the yard besides a few roses and one overgrown camellia: Not an appealing menu for the refined hummingbird palette. So the feeder on the back porch quickly became a soup kitchen for local birds, who became helpless street urchins emptying their bowls and asking, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

Sometimes, their requests were polite and melodic as they hovered around me like woodland sidekicks to a Disney princess. “My, isn’t nature enchanting,” I mused. I half expected them to bake a pie or invite their deer friends in to clean the dishes.

Other times, they flicked around my face like unpaid mafia toughs, implying what might happen if I didn’t get them their nectar — and soon. “My, isn’t nature cutthroat,” I reflected. I’d shield my eyes and dash into the house to mix a batch.

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Hummingbird feeders can provide essential energy to the birds when most plants are dormant for winter.

I’m unsure what happened after our landlord sold the house and we moved, taking the holy sugar water with us. Did the happy new homeowners soon sour on the deal, realizing they had moved into a Hitchcockian horror? Did the hummingbirds beak at their thin windows or dart at their soft faces? Did those tiny banshees screech whenever they opened their door? Did the birds gather around the deck, watching the residents and biding their time? (If you’ve heard rumors about a family that fled an avian haunting in East Portland, let me know!)

I don’t use the feeders anymore, mostly because I’ve accepted they’re a chore I don’t keep up with. I forget to refresh the water consistently, which can be dangerous. Letting the sugar water sit too long or cleaning the feeder lackadaisically allows bacteria and illnesses to fester and spread.

Feeders can be controversial. Some bird lovers worry the nutritional value of sugar water is too low compared to a natural plant diet. The McDonalds of hummingbird food. That’s a misunderstanding. Sugar water isn’t junk food; it’s just not a complete meal. All-natural plant nectar is often just sugary, watery stuff, too (though it contains traces of other nutrients like acids and oils). Hummingbirds need those carbohydrates to survive — combined with protein, which they mostly find in bugs. If you’re really concerned about providing a balanced meal, you could create a gnat farm for them, I guess. (Eww.)

In an ideal world, hummingbirds would not need to supplement their diet with human offerings. Unfortunately, the too-often barren lawns of suburbia offer them few food sources, so our little feeders can be a boon in underplanted neighborhoods and dormant winters.

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Western Red Columbine has a color and bloom shape hummingbirds love.

If you do hang up a feeder, fill it with nectar made with a ratio of one part sugar to four parts boiled water (and only use regular white sugar, never brown sugar, honey, or food dyes). Replace the nectar and wash the feeder thoroughly once or twice a week (more frequently if it’s quite hot) or sooner if your locals drain it and start threatening bodily harm. In cold snaps, keep the nectar from freezing during the day by wrapping it with a string of Christmas lights.

NATURE’S WAY

Whether you use a feeder or not, adding specific plants to your yard or balcony will encourage hummingbirds to show up and stick around.

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Hummingbirds like milkweed as much as butterflies. 

The Platonic ideal of a hummingbird magnet is a tubular red flower, but they will find nectar in a range of bloom shapes and colors. A bird that needs hundreds of flowers daily can’t be too picky! Remember the importance of density and diversity. The larger your plantings and the more consistently your yard hosts flowers throughout the year, the more likely you’ll nab the eye of a passerby.

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Penstemon is another hummingbird magnet. 

Our native hummingbirds love our native plants. These include small trees and large shrubs like Cascara, red flowering currant, red-osier dogwood, Osoberry, and evergreen huckleberry. Hummingbirds will also visit smaller shrubby plants like Western bleeding heart, goldenrod, Oregon grape, and salal. Honeysuckle vines are a traditional hummingbird lure, and we have a few local options: hairy honeysuckle, orange/trumpet honeysuckle, and black twinberry.

If you don’t have room for trees and shrubs or want a meadowy garden, try some wildflowers and grasses, including:

  • Giant red paintbrush
  • Checkermallows (meadow or rose)
  • Lupines (large-leafed, riverbank)
  • Milkweeds (common or showy)
  • Western red columbine

Yellow-eyed or blue-eyed grass

  • Penstemons (Cascade or broad-leafed)

Ornamentals from around the world can attract hummingbirds, as well. Consider foxglove, fuchsia, hosta, larkspur, salvia, and zinnia.

Hummingbirds may also flock to other general bird features, like a shallow birdbath or other water source. Trees and shrubs provide shelter for their nests and spots to perch. Like most living things, pesticides can harm them, and pesticides can kill off bugs, a hummingbird’s primary protein source. Consequently, using pesticides as sparingly as possible is a good idea.

And just like that, you have a hummingbird garden! Dust off the rocking chair on your porch, sit down with a cuppa tea, and wait for the birds to find you. Just have their next nectar dose ready before they get hangry.

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