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  • ljmarkson

Make Your Yard a Safe Hummingbird Habitat!

Updated: Mar 31

Like everyone else who eagerly anticipates their arrival, I’m checking out my yard every day looking for my first “hummer” of the season.  For the last two years, my first sighting was on March 31 - so it will be any day now! I’ve worked hard to make my rewilded Atlanta yard a safe habitat for wildlife, including hummingbirds. The following considerations may help you prepare to welcome hummingbirds to your yard this year.

I can't get enough of watching our tiniest birds make my yard their home from spring through fall, and I anxiously await their arrival every year!

Prevent Hummingbirds from Hitting Windows

Bird strikes are one of the top human-related reasons for bird deaths. Around 65% of window collisions are fatal and one billion birds die from them each year. Hummingbirds have a disproportionately high vulnerability to window collisions. I occasionally had bird window strikes, but it wasn’t until two ruby-throated hummingbirds engrossed in a territorial dispute bumped into my back door window a few years ago that I realized I needed to do more to prevent this from happening.

This sweet little bird is the reason every window in my home is covered in white dot grids! I was horrified to see his tiny body stunned from banging into my window and did everything I could since then to prevent it from ever happening again - and it hasn't.

I chose one of the easiest and cheapest ways to prevent bird strikes by using white glass pen wet wipe markers (also called liquid chalk markers) to make dots 2-4 inches apart on all the windows in my home. I haven’t had a bird strike since. Other ideas include creating visual barriers on top of windows such as paracord; window screens; decals; stickers; tape; transparent patterned window film; or installing bird-friendly glass that is etched, frosted, UV-reflecting, or patterned in some way.

This is the view looking out from a window in my home. The dots are barely visible. My husband just noticed them on one of the windows for the first time since I added them a few years ago!

Light pollution can disrupt the rhythm of life for the people, plants, and wildlife it affects, including hummingbirds. Artificial light is also responsible for nighttime window strikes. Most window strikes are during fall and spring migration (now!) but birds including hummingbirds collide with windows all year long. Simple ways to reduce light pollution. and embrace the natural darkness of the night include turning off outside lights at night; using motions sensors and dimmers; not using unnecessary ornamental lights such the ones that uplight trees and shrubs; and closing shades at night. This video was taken on a walk home one night - the darkness at the end is me walking past our own home where we keep a dark yard at night - with motion sensor lights to keep us safe.


Make a Hummingbird Buffet with Nectar-Rich Native Plants!

Make sure your yard has a diversity of native plants for hummingbirds to choose from. Hummingbirds prefer flowers that are long and shallow with concentrated nectar - not necessarily just red or orange flowers. For example, if you have a shady natural area of your yard that’s not too dry where you can let native jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) grow, you’ll be rewarded with hummingbirds fighting over the flowers! The interaction between this plant and hummingbirds is perfectly designed by nature. Jewelweed flowers peak in the fall just when hummingbirds are in a frenzy bulking up for their long journey south for the winter. This makes perfect sense because jewelweed happens to have an unusually high nectar content – about 40%.  Nectar is hummingbird energy and hummingbirds are the main pollinators of jewelweeds along with bumblebees.

Native jewelweed is a great hummingbird habitat plant because of its high nectar content. It's an annual and self-seeds with abandon, so if you're in Atlanta I'm happy to give you some seedlings I've potted up to get you started.

Choose native flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season so there is always natural nectar for hummingbirds in your yard. For example, some of the spring blooming native plants growing in my yard to welcome hummingbirds include: Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia). Bluestar (Amsonia), Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Coastal dog hobble (leucothoe), Tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirensand, Virginia bluebell (Mertensia pulmonarioides, Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), Fern-leaf Scorpion-weed (Phacelia Pipinnatifida), Woodland phlox (phlox divaricate), Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens), Lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrate), Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), and Spiderwort (Tradescantia). The hummingbirds show up around the same time as the crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) start blooming - and I took the video below yesterday!

Just make sure any plants you get off a list to plant for hummingbirds are native to where you live. If you know the botanical names of a plant BONAP (The Biota of North America Program Database) is a great resource. Just punch in the name and the words “BONAP” and “map” (not necessarily in quotations) on the internet and you can see the native range in North America for the species. If a map doesn’t pull up, it’s undoubtedly not native. This is my go-to way to figure out if a plant is native to where I live. Another way to see where a plant would naturally grow is to search a plant name and “native range” and the magic of the internet will find sources to tell you where a plant is native to.

The native plants in this collage all grow in my ecoregion and offer nectar for hummingbirds throughout the growing season. Top - blue sage (Salvia azurea), scarlet sage (Saliva coccinea), yellow evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Middle - scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), and Bottom - partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), beardstongue (Penstemon), skullcap (Scutellaria)

Offer a Water Source for Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds rarely visit bird baths because nectar and insects give them the water they need to stay hydrated. They like moving water to keep their feather clean in the form of a shower, mist, or dripping water over a water source. There are all kinds of hummingbird water misters as well as DYI tutorials for making your own if you do a little digging on the internet. (Below is a video of a birdbath solar bubbler I added to my wildlife container pond when I first set it up last summer)


Keep Your Yard Pesticide Free

About 96% of bird species need insects to feed their babies. This includes hummingbirds who also eat twice their body weight in food each day with 80% of their diet coming from insects! (They feed their babies by regurgitating insects and nectar they eat for them) A safe habitat for hummingbirds includes a yard with small insects including mosquitoes, gnats, and aphids! The following are some things to consider before using any kind of insecticide in your yard:

Most backyard birds need insects to feed their babies including this sweet bluebird dad feeding his fledgling one of the 2,000 insects he needs to find each day for each baby bird!
  • Don’t let a pest control service wipe those awful pesticide covered fluffy wands around all your windows and doors! This kills the natural pest control you already have for flying insects (spiders!); takes away nesting material for hummingbirds (spider webs!); and deprives small birds of the food (spiders!) they might feed their babies.

Spiders are a vital part of the yard ecosystem. For hummingbirds, they can offer both nesting material and food. Spiders are NOT pests to be exterminated!
Toxic lawn chemicals kill insects - this is why the companies applying them are required to leave warning signs.
  • Any service that sprays or “treats” an area in a yard for an insect they call a “pest” does not tell the consumer that they are spraying a broad-spectrum insecticide that will kill an entire category (or more) of insects. For example, most insecticides advertise that they to kill "beetles" but gloss over the fact that our beloved fireflies are beetles.

Mosquito spray indiscriminately kills small flying insects such as this tiny long-legged fly (Condylostylus patibulatus) that pollinates plants and also predates on mosquitoes!
  • Neonicotinoids are systemic insecticides absorbed into nursery plants and found in pollen and nectar, making them toxic to pollinators that feed on them – including hummingbirds. The safest way to ensure that you aren’t buying plants with neonicotinoids on them is to get them from a reliable source such as your local native plant nursery.

Another way to ensure there are no neonicotinoids in the native plants in your yard is to grow them yourself. I know the native annuals and biennials in my yard are pesticide free because I grow many of them from seed - like this scarlet sage (salvia coccinea) a ruby throated hummingbird is pollinating.

Keep Stems and Stalks Up All Year

In addition to spider silk, hummingbirds build their tiny round golf ball sized nests using soft natural matter like native seed pod fiber or down from plants such as milkweed (Asclepias) or native clematis (Clematis virginiana), plus moss, lichen or even feathers.

Fluff and plant fiber from dried native plants might be used by hummingbirds for nesting material (clockwise from top left - milkweed, tall thimbleweed, aster, native clematis)

Look at your yard through the eyes of a hummingbird. Leaving last year’s stems and stalks up all year can also offer them a place to search for predators and food. I’ve noticed hummingbirds love to perch on dried, not fresh, plant stalks in the more open areas of my yard to rest when foraging for food. The advice to chop and drop stems 12-15 inches above the ground in late spring for nesting bees doesn’t help the hummingbirds who need a safe resting spot or lookout!

The dried evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) stem this tiny ruby-throated hummingbird was resting on last August was from the previous year!

Offer Supplementary Food

I’ve noticed the hummingbirds in my yard spend most of their time foraging for insects and nectar from native plants before visiting the hummingbird feeders. Only 20% or so of a hummingbird’s diet comes from nectar but I add feeders to supplement the dearth of insects and native flowering plants in the habitat impoverished yards around me. Unless the feeders are in a habitat rich yard, they are only a small snack in a desert for hummingbirds. In the video below the hummingbird getting nectar from ironweed (vernonia) in my rewilded yard just finished visiting the garden phlox (phlox paniculata). A hummingbird feeder was his last stop to top off his meal.

Some tips if you decide to offer a supplemental feeder:

  •  If you add a feeder, the saucer shape doesn't leak like other shapes do. If you keep the water well (designed to keep ants out) refreshed it has the added benefit of being a water source for other small birds such as goldfinches, brown-headed nuthatches, and Carolina chickadees.

I'm amazed how many birds use the well of hummingbird feeders as a water source!
  • Don’t buy commercially prepared nectar because it’s expensive and has red dye that has no purpose.

  • It's easy to make your own hummingbird nectar   1) Mix ¼ cup white sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan. 2) Heat until the sugar completely dissolves. You don’t want to let it boil once the sugar dissolves because it will condense the sugar to water ratio.   3) Let the nectar cool to room temperature before using. 4) Nectar Tips: 0 You can make more or less nectar depending on how many feeders you have by keeping the 1-part sugar to 4 parts water ratios. 0 The nectar can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. 0 The nectar needs to be brought to room temperature before adding to the feeder. 0 Only use white sugar – don’t substitute any other kind of sugar, artificial sweetener, molasses, or honey.  

  • The feeder needs to be kept clean. Only put a feeder out if you can realistically maintain it. If the nectar becomes cloudy, fermented, or moldy it can harm hummingbirds.

  • I hang my feeders on a pole about 6 feet off the ground with a baffle beneath it so predators can’t reach the hummingbirds (or nectar!)

  • Place the feeder not too far from shrubs and trees; in partial shade; and as far apart as possible if you have multiple feeders because hummingbirds are territorial. Also, if you can, place a feeder where you can see it through binoculars. Coexisting with nature in our yard means we also get the pleasure of seeing wildlife use their habitat.

I try hard not to interfere with the nature in my yard and don't see any inconsistency in placing the hummingbird feeders where I can see the hummingbirds on them - the same way I can see so many of my native flowers from different windows in my home.

Keep house cats inside!

This is not a small issue! Cats are killing machines and the #1 human-caused reason for the alarming 30% bird decline. Cats kill an estimated 1.3–4.0 billion birds in the U.S. and hummingbirds are just one of the many bird species vulnerable to free roaming outside cats.

My indoor-only cats Merlin and Moo watch what's going on outside like it's on television! In this photo they're tracking a mourning dove (circled in green) foraging on my back deck right outside the back door! If I open the door my cats run - in the opposite direction of outside!

Don't Buy Chinese Praying Mantis Egg Cases! This may seem like a random one, but the non-native Chinese praying mantis egg cases still being sold as garden “pest control” are 5 inches long and more aggressive than our native praying mantises half that size (and they're also skilled predators!). The ruby-throated hummingbirds that are the species visiting our yards in Georgia are only 3" to 3..5 inches long. It's may not be common, but invasive praying mantises have been documented on feeders eating hummingbirds. More important is the fact that the invasive mantises can outcompete and displace the native ones. (This video is a Chinese mantis predating on insects in my rewilded yard - fortunately, he's nowhere near a hummingbird feeder)


The same habitat changes we make to help hummingbirds this spring will also help all the other nesting birds where we live. Helping hummingbirds might even mean you’ll see a variety of baby birds in your yard this year!

My micro-prairie areas offer habitat options for hummingbirds and other birds.

Note: There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the post for links to references, details, explanations, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that I think might be helpful.

 

5 Comments

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rhluc
Apr 05
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wowww. I call myself a lover of nature but I didn't realize the level of my own ignorance! Thanks for launching my curiosity of how I can grow to truly embrace nature.

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ljmarkson
Apr 05
Replying to

You already are embracing nature! Every day I learn more about things I never thought about or didn't know.

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jjustus55
Apr 02
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Do you put the white dry marker dots on the inside or outside of your windows?

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ljmarkson
Apr 05
Replying to

It needs to be outside - but honestly I can't get outside some of the windows on the second floor like the transom windows and put them inside. It seems to have worked. Screened window apparently don't need the dots because the screen act as deterrents.

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kimckauffman
Mar 30
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very informative post. So much to learn. Thank you!

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