Garden Variety: Hummingbirds make return after winter migration

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the only hummingbird species common in Kansas, are making their way back to the area after their annual journey to Mexico and the tropics for the winter. If you are interested in attracting these beauties to your yard, now is the time to add flowers and plants as well as feeders to provide habitat and food for the birds.

You might enjoy watching hummingbirds in your yard because of their delicate nature, the pleasant hum of their wings and the charm with which they feed. Their wings beat very fast to keep them afloat (an estimated 55 strokes per second, on average), and the movement allows them to move vertically, hover in one place and stop on a dime. They dart in and out among flowers as they feed, picking up nectar, small insects and spiders.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only hummingbird species common in Kansas and are the smallest bird native to North America. They are identified by their small size – adults are about 3 1/2 inches long and weigh less than 1/4 ounce. Males have a brilliant red throat that resembles a kerchief around the neck, for which the species is named. Males and females both have emerald or very dark green coloring on their back and the tops of their heads, dusky to white underbodies, and long, narrow bills.

Hummingbirds are also beneficial: one ruby-throated female can consume up to 2,000 insects per day.

Hummingbird feeders are widely available and can be helpful in attracting the cheerful little birds, but creating habitat and providing natural food sources will keep them around the longest. There are many native and adapted plants that are appropriate. Try to plant a mix of species to ensure that something is blooming from mid-April to October while hummingbirds are in the area.

Plants with bright colored tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers are the most attractive to hummingbirds.

Perennials are the easiest plants to add to the garden for hummingbirds, and many of the same plant species that provide nectar for the birds are also beneficial for butterflies. For spring blossoms, try dianthus, foxglove, iris, columbine and penstemon. For summer and fall, use agastache, native salvias, butterfly milkweed, liatris, lobelia and zinnia. If you want more structure with trees and shrubs, buckeye, tulip poplar, rose of Sharon hardy hibiscus, coralberry, clethra and native honeysuckles are all good choices for hummingbird food and habitat.

If using a feeder in conjunction with planting hummingbird habitat and food sources, select one that is easy to fill and clean, has red coloring on it and has grids or screens over the feeding ports to discourage bees. Hang feeders from tree branches, on posts, on porches and decks or any other support that provides partial shade and some protection from wind.

Fill hummingbird feeders with commercial artificial nectar or homemade sugar-water solution. For the homemade solution, mix one part sugar with four parts water. Refrigerate extra solution. Change the mix every few days, especially during hot weather, or immediately if the water becomes cloudy or you notice mold growth. Do not use food coloring, dyes, artificial sweeteners or honey.

Clean feeders periodically with hot water and a bottle brush or by soaking with vinegar. Rinse thoroughly before refilling and returning it to the yard.

If multiple hummingbirds frequent your yard, males can become territorial over feeders. Remedy this by placing additional feeders (and adding more plants for them to share, if possible). Feeders should be spaced 10 to 15 feet apart to allow hummingbirds their space.

In typical years, feeders can be placed in the garden in April and left through October when hummingbirds fly south for winter. There are multiple websites that track the migration of hummingbirds that can help with more specific dates.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.