This story was originally published in March 2019.
Hummingbirds may seem like mystical sprites reserved for the tropics, but the small birds can be found around the U.S. at different parts of the year as they migrate between their southern winter habitats and their northern summer habitats.
“There is no place in the United States where you can’t find hummingbirds, but there are not hummingbirds everywhere all the time,” Fred Bassett, president of Hummingbird Research Inc., said. Past maps of hummingbird migration patterns will give you an idea of when the birds will arrive.
Nicholas Lund, outreach and network manager at the Maine Audubon Society, said ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are the only breeding hummingbird species in Maine, are expected to arrive in the beginning of May.
Though the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species expected to be seen in Maine during the spring and summer, Lund said that some other species of hummingbirds, like the rufous hummingbird or Allen’s hummingbird, will stray over to the East Coast to feed in the fall as well for a rare sighting.
Once you have determined when hummingbirds will be in your area, you can organize your yard to be most attractive to them so you can enjoy their aerial antics. Here are a few tips.
Hang a few feeders
Hanging hummingbird feeders are a great way to attract hummingbirds to your yard.
“Hummingbird feeders make their lives easier,” Bassett said. While hummingbirds are migrating, they need food to fuel their journey. “Rather than going to 500 flowers, they can come to a hummingbird feeder,” he said.
Most store-bought hummingbird feeders are red, but the color does not really matter, as long as the feeder is easy to clean. Once you have your feeder, you can easily make your own hummingbird food from sugar and water.
Hang several feeders far enough apart that they are not in the same line of sight. Male hummingbirds can be territorial about their feeders, so having several will keep one hummingbird from dominating all the feeders. If you can, hang your feeders in the shade to prevent them from fermenting.
Timing also matters. H. Ross Hawkins, founder and executive director of The Hummingbird Society, explained that you want to have your hummingbird feeders ready just before the birds arrive.
“They’re hungry,” Hawkins said. “If you put out a feeder, you always want to be the first one. For the early birds, I want them to know I’m the only game in town.”
Since the ruby-throated hummingbird arrives in Maine around the first two weeks of May, Hawkins suggested putting feeders out the last week in April.
Mainers can also leave feeders up longer than they think. According to Lund, hummingbirds can be seen in Maine until October.
“Most of the birds gone by September and October, but some come up here accidentally,” Lund explained. During migration, birds can be blown off course, and Lund said this happens frequently with light, tiny hummingbirds.
“If you leave [feeders] up however long they can stay unfrozen, you can give these hummingbirds a much needed meal,” he said.
Plant a variety of flowers
Native plants that are rich in nectar are most attractive to hummingbirds. Brightly colored tubular flowers like trumpet honeysuckle and bee balm are particularly attractive because they hold more nectar.
Hummingbird Research Inc. has a list of plants that are attractive to hummingbirds. The Audubon Society’s native plants database also keeps track of bird-friendly native plants for your area and can help connect you to local native plant resources.
It also helps to choose species with different blooming periods so that there will be a steady supply of flowers nearly year round. Deadhead your flowers frequently, too, to keep them blooming.
“The best is a combination of flowers and feeders,” Hawkins said. “If you have a garden and you’re using flowers, you want something in bloom all the time hummingbirds are there, so you want to put feeders out because that supplements it.”
For Mainers, Lund recommends growing bluebells, milkweeds, cardinal flowers, red columbines and honeysuckle to attract hummingbirds.
In general, Hawkins recommends growing plants in the salvia family. “If you just have salvias you’ll do pretty well. They are probably the most dependable because they have the longest blooming time,” he said. “In addition, the flowers are at least 20 percent sugar. I would ask my local nursery what salvias do well in the area. ”
Set up circulating water for hummingbirds
Hummingbirds need water to clean themselves after a filling meal at a feeder or flowers.
“Eating nectar is a sticky business,” Hawkins said. “If they don’t that sticky material in their nest can cause their feathers to fall out.”
Set up a circulating water feature for hummingbirds to bathe. Hawkis said you can use a shallow pool or mister.
“They don’t want still water,” Hawkins explained. “I have a recirculating water vase. The hummingbirds come and hang on the side of it and jump in top and swim around. They just have a ball.”
Provide nesting material for hummingbirds
When female hummingbirds arrive, they are looking for places to build their nests. If your feeder has nesting material nearby, they can kill two birds with one stone.
“Unprocessed cotton turns out to be the ideal material for a hummingbird nest,” Hawkins said. He recommends a product called Hummer Helper, which can be hung next to the feeder for birds to pick from.
Hawkins warns against using DIY replacements for unprocessed cotton for the safety of the birds. He said that he has heard of hummingbird enthusiasts using dryer lint, which can stick to their fragile feathers, and white processed cotton, which can trap birds in fibrous tangles.
“I have not yet seen anything else that you can put out,” he said.
You can also leave your cobwebs. Spider silk is one of the main ingredients in hummingbird nests. Plus, the insects provide protein, which are essentially for baby hummingbird development.
Making your yard a great place to build nests is a good long term strategy for attracting hummingbirds as well because hummingbirds have a highly developed spatial memory.
“If they have a successful nest, they’ll come back to the same area where they were nesting before,” Hawkins said.
Attract insects for hummingbirds to eat
Minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides in your yard so hummingbirds can snack on the insects that come through your garden.
Hawkins also suggested leaving a banana out by your feeder for about ten days to attract fruit flies, but that can get messy. He recommended Humm-Bug, a container for the fruit with vertical slits around the perimeter so bugs can escape once the banana starts attracting them.
“Hummingbirds learn really quick,” Hawkins said. “If that mama is feeding her babies, she’ll appreciate it.”
With a few key tweaks, your yard will quickly become a paradise for these fast-flapping birds and you will be able to observe their aerial antics for months to come.