Hummingbirds are often described as the jewels of the avian world – brilliantly colored balls of energy that dart through summer sunshine leaving trails of pollen and magic in their wake. The collective nouns for hummingbirds include ‘glittering’, ‘shimmer’ and ‘bouquet’ – all aptly descriptive of the wonder of these tiny creatures that migrate for thousands of miles and fill our summers with joy. Revered by many Native American cultures as a messenger of the gods or a harbinger of good luck, it is easy to understand the deep affection that people feel toward these tiny creatures that appear so vulnerable and yet are feisty and resilient.
While there are more than 330 species of hummingbirds in the Western Hemisphere, and a dozen different kinds of hummingbirds in the western part of the country, east of the Great Plains the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the most common visitor. Here in the Capital Region, we can expect to see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) return to our gardens and feeders in April or May after their migration from as far away as Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. While the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the sole species to breed in eastern North America, occasionally other species of hummingbirds from outside their normal range visit the area. Whether they simply got ‘lost’ during migration, or were blown off-course by storms, these ‘vagrants’ are a source of much delight to local birders who relish the opportunity to see a species that is out of the ordinary.
The return of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird to its summer home is celebrated in many ways. Photographers vie to post the first photo of a male hummingbird with its brilliant ruby red throat (gorget), while others track location reports on eBird or fill special hummingbird feeders in eager anticipation of their arrival. Whether photographer, bird-enthusiast or just a lover of the species, one of the best ways to enjoy the thrill of a hummingbird’s visit is to fill our gardens with the nectar-rich flowers that they crave. Native Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans), Beebalm (Monarda didyma), Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadense) are irresistible to hummingbirds, and many other pollinators as well. Yes, red and orange tubular flowers are sure-fire winners when it comes to attracting hummers!
For those without a garden, it is easy to host hummingbirds by maintaining feeders. It is amazing to watch a hummingbird suspend itself in space on tiny wings that beat up to 53 times a second, remaining perfectly still and simultaneously drinking deeply through its slender bill. There are a few important things to remember if you are going to feed hummingbirds. Homemade nectar is just a simple mixture of one-quarter cup of white granulated sugar per one cup of water. Boil the water and add it to the sugar to dissolve it completely. Once the mixture has cooled, add it to the feeder and refrigerate the remainder for later use. Do not add food coloring and do not use honey or brown sugar – these can injure hummingbirds. The nectar must be changed frequently – during hot weather, sugar water ferments rapidly to produce a toxic alcohol. When the temperature is above 90, the nectar must be changed daily. In lower temperatures, change the nectar every few days and remember to rinse out the feeder between fillings to prevent the build-up of dangerous mold. Also, be sure to place your hummingbird feeder far out of the range of outdoor cats who pose a real threat to small birds.
For those who can’t get enough of the beauty of hummingbirds, a group of local photographers are mounting an exhibition this summer at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria. The title of the show is “A Celebration of Hummingbirds” and it will feature works from more than 20 area artists and include hummingbirds from all over the Western Hemisphere. All profits from the sale of photos will be donated to the Friends of Green Spring, a non-profit organization devoted to maintaining the gardens and furthering public education and outreach. The show runs from June 28 through October 16, 2022, at the Green Spring Gardens Historic House and is free to the public. The reception will be held on July 10, 2022, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the historic house.
Author Jane Gamble is a Fairfax County Park Authority volunteer, local photographer and 2020 recipient of an Elly Doyle Special Recognition Park Service Award.