Sunday, May 2, 2021

Nature: To fuel hummingbirds, think native plants

A female ruby-throated hummingbird taps nectar from a royal catchfly/Jim McCormac

Nature: To fuel hummingbirds, think native plants

Jim McCormac

By the time you read this, “your” hummingbirds may have returned. Or maybe you belong to them. Common is the story of newly arrived hummingbirds hovering in front of windows, angrily chittering if their feeders have not yet been hung. Hummers have long memories. The slothful homeowner is shamed into rushing out with the sprite’s supply of sugar water.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin returning from tropical wintering haunts in the third week of April, and have recolonized Ohio by mid-May. These 3-gram elfins mostly winter from western Mexico south to Panama.

In an epic migration, many ruby-throated hummingbirds travel across the Gulf of Mexico. This nonstop water crossing is nearly 600 miles. Once the hummers make landfall along the Gulf coast, they’ve still got 750 miles to go to reach your Central Ohio yard.

Males precede females by a week or so, and quickly stake claims to suitable territories. When females arrive, amorous males begin a spectacular courtship. The Lilliput flares his colorful throat feathers, and launches into his dive display.

Like a feathered meteor, the male streaks earthward from on high creating a loud buzzing with its wings. At the bottom of its arcing parabola, which might be 50 feet below the starting point, the hummer pulls out and shoots skyward. The showoff might continue this incredible aerial display repeatedly.

Once a female expresses interest by perching nearby, the male zooms over and commences zipping side to side at insane speed, often within 2-3 of her.

If she is suitably impressed, they mate.

And so ends the male’s role in this relationship. He abandons the territory he had staked, and helps not a whit with nest construction, egg incubation, or care of the young. Once the avian lothario’s spectacular but brief fling is over, it’s back to a carefree lifestyle among the flowers.

The much more responsible female crafts an amazing golf ball-sized nest from plant down, binding it with spider silk, and shingles the exterior with lichens. Two eggs the size of jelly beans are laid.

After the impossibly tiny chicks hatch, she works tirelessly to feed them a mixture of nectar and insect soup. The female sticks her long bill deep down the baby’s gullet, and pumps in the nutritious gruel.

When she isn’t out foraging for food, the hummingbird broods her charges. A harder working bird you will not find.

About three weeks after hatching, the young hummers depart the nest. The female will continue to feed them for perhaps a week, but then it’s time to go solo. The youngsters have much street savvy to accumulate before jetting off to the tropics for the winter.

While feeding hummingbirds with sugar water (one part sugar, four parts water) is rewarding for all parties, there is a much better way to help them.

Grow native plants.

Hummingbirds have a long co-evolutionary history with our flora. The female in the accompanying photo is tapping nectar from a royal catchfly. Hummingbirds are likely the only suitable pollinator for that gorgeous prairie plant.

Some showy hummer-friendly native plants for the yardscape include bee-balm, cardinal flower, coral honeysuckle, fire pink, Ohio buckeye, both spotted and yellow jewelweed, trumpet creeper, wild columbine, and the aforementioned royal catchfly.

Help a hummingbird and add some native plants to the yard. Two excellent native plant nurseries in Central Ohio are Natives in Harmony ( and Scioto Gardens ( The Midwest Native Plant Society has a wealth of helpful information (

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim 

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