BY Ralph E. Mitchell
Beyond the plants found in our tropical/subtropical landscapes, another enjoyable aspect of this environment is the wildlife it attracts. Birds often highlight this facet of wildlife including the small living jewels we call hummingbirds. We get a fair amount of questions and calls about these tiny three inch long, quarter ounce gems. This article supports one of the nine principals of Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ – # 5. – Attract Wildlife – Bring your yard to life by providing water, food and shelter for birds, butterflies and other creatures!
We only have three species of hummingbirds in Florida represented primarily by the ruby-throated hummingbird. The black-chinned and the rufous hummingbird may also be spotted, but are less common. While some of these hummers (these birds do not actually hum, the wing beats make the sound) stay in Florida year-round, most of these birds winter in Mexico and South America. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive in Florida in March with the females following a week after. Nesting begins in April with tiny nests made of materials such as lichens and moss weaved together with spider webs. Two, less than half inch long, eggs are laid and hatch in twenty days. The babies are ready to leave the nest in about four weeks.
Acquiring food is one of the hummingbird’s chief activities. To maintain their high metabolic rate, hummingbirds need to consume large amounts of high-energy fuel in the form of nectar. In fact, one hummingbird may need to feed from hundreds of flowers per day to maintain its body weight. Their long bills and specially-adapted tongues are great for feeding on flowers as often as every ten to fifteen minutes per day! This feeding habit is so necessary just to keep these birds alive and active. Just before dark, they eat as much as they can. At night, hummingbirds go into a type of hibernation that lowers their temperature and heart rate. This conserves energy so that they can get through the night.
So, what can you do to help hummingbirds with this “need to feed”? Artificial feeders are readily available at many garden centers and department stores. Keep in mind that feeders should not be considered the only source of food for hummers. The sugar solution provided does not have much nutrition as compared with real floral nectar. You can buy packages of instant nectar or make your own. Use one part white, granulated, cane sugar to four parts water. Boil the mixture to dissolve the sugar and then let it cool. Do not use a sweeter solution or any type of sugar substitute such as honey as these can kill hummingbirds. You also do not need to add any red color to the mix.
Feeders come in a wide variety of styles. Keep the feeder away from direct sunlight and space them at least ten feet away if using more than one due to the possessive nature of hummers. Always keep the sugar solution fresh as bacterial growth will contaminate the mixture and can kill the birds. Change the sugar solution every three to five days and clean the feeder with hot water and vinegar only.
To really keep hummingbirds happy and in your landscape, adding favorite flowering plants to your garden is necessary. Hummingbirds like red, orange or pink flowers. Also, tubular flowers are noted as good sources of nectar. The research indicates that hummers learn by trial and error which flowers have the most nectar. Planting a variety of flowering plants – trees, shrubs, vines, perennials and annuals will expand the availability of nectar throughout the year – mostly needed from March to September by the hummingbirds. The types of plants to consider may range from firebush, firespike and shrimp plant, to cypress vines and scarlet morning glories; just to name a few. My only personal experience in successfully attracting hummingbirds has been with a pagoda flower (Clerodendrum) and a red sleeping hibiscus – both just one visit each!
Hummingbirds, like other wildlife, enhance your landscape with a different dimension of color, movement and splendor. For more information on attracting wildlife to your landscape, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer. Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/charlotte/docs/pdf/Plant-Clinics-Schedule1.pdf. Our Eastport Environmental Demonstration Garden is always open to the public outside the gate at 25550 Harbor View Road. Master Gardener volunteers tend this garden on Tuesday mornings from 8 to 10 am and are available for questions. Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schaefer, J. & Huegel, C. N. (2017) Hummingbirds of Florida, The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Florida-Friendly Landscaping Handbook (2015) https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/materials/FYN_Handbook_2015_web.pdf#page=31.