Growing up in the South, our family always had hummingbird feeders adorning the eaves of our house. After all, what better show is there than watching these tiny, frantic birds in their pursuit of sweet nectar?
As an adult, my fascination with hummingbirds goes beyond the red plastic feeders of my youth. Now I'm more interested in knowing what kinds of plants attract hummingbirds, so that I'm sure to have them visit even if I forget to fill my feeder with hummingbird food.
I took my hummingbird questions to an expert, Peg Beute of Ijams Nature Center, based in Knoxville, Tenn.
Q: What do hummingbirds like to eat?
A: Hummingbirds are nectar drinkers, and get the bulk of their sustenance from nectar-producing flowers and hummingbird feeders. However, they also eat small insects. People ask me a lot how to keep ants out of their feeders, and I encourage them to leave them be. Hummingbirds love an ant appetizer before their meal of nectar.
Q: How do you make hummingbird food?
A: It's a 4:1 sugar-water ratio; heat the water just until the sugar melts. Boiling the sugar water actually reduces some of the energy it provides, so try to not overheat.
Q: Do hummingbirds live in nests? Can you put a "hummingbird house" in your yard?
A: When mating or raising their young, hummingbirds make a very tiny nest, the size of a ping-pong ball. These nests are incredibly intricate, using spider webs, lichens, ferns and other small plants. They may look fragile, but they are very strong. As far as birdhouses go, hummingbirds aren't "cavity nesters" like bluebirds and woodpeckers; they build their nests out on a limb. What really attracts hummingbirds are the feeders.
Q: Besides feeders, how can you best attract hummingbirds? Are there plants or flowers they like best?
A: Hummingbirds flock to anything that creates nectar and is red in color. Even red flowers that don't produce nectar will attract them to feeders placed nearby. They love nectar-producing flowers such as trumpet flowers and cross vines. Some vegetables attract hummingbirds -- scarlet runner beans have a beautiful red bloom and snap peas bloom pink or purple. They feed the hummingbird while in bloom, and then you can reap the rewards later on.