JoAnne Skelly: The amazing pugnacious hummingbird

Plant a diversity of flowers that bloom at different times of the year to attract hummingbirds.

Plant a diversity of flowers that bloom at different times of the year to attract hummingbirds.

I’m a fan of hummingbirds. They are amazing aerobatic wizards. They can fly in all directions including backwards and upside down at speeds of 30 to 45 mph. They can hover like miniature helicopters. They beat their wings 60 to 200 times per second.

These tiny powerhouses weigh about as much as a penny, in some cases, yet they are fierce defenders of their territory. A hummingbird egg may be only the size of a pea laid in a walnut-shell sized nest woven of spiderwebs and plant material. Their active heart rate is over an astonishing 1,200 beats per minute, the highest metabolism of all animals. They may live three to six years. Hummers are only found in the Western Hemisphere from southern Alaska to southern Chile with the majority of species living in the tropics. They migrate individually.

Hummers are threatened by habitat loss. Yet, because hummingbirds thrive in our gardens and yards, we as gardeners can help birds survive by creating a hummingbird friendly habitat. Hummers eat flower nectar, tree sap (often in holes or sap-wells made by woodpeckers), insects (primarily during nestling season) and pollen. Flowers that attract hummers are often long and tubular with orange, red or bright pink petals. Drooping flowers provide easy access to a hovering eater.

A few plants in our area that are good food sources for hummers include bee balm, trumpet vine, coral bells, scarlet gilia, trumpet honeysuckle, agastache, penstemon, columbine, pineapple sage and scarlet salvia. The goal is to plant a diversity of flowers that bloom at different times of year. Hummingbirds also need perches, an abundance of insects, shelter from predators and maybe even a water mister with a fine spray for bathing.

It doesn’t hurt to put up a red hummingbird feeder and keep it filled with sugar water. A feeder must be cleaned every couple of days in hot weather and every three to four days when it’s cool. Use four parts water to one part plain white sugar, never brown sugar, honey, molasses or artificial sweeteners. Commercial mixes are not necessary. Do not add food coloring to the water. You can tie red ribbons near the feeder to attract a hummer’s attention. It is not necessary to take feeders down in late summer to fall. The birds will still migrate and you will be supplying a much-needed food source to recharge them on their journey.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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