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Winged Wonders

Few birds attract more interest and excitement than hummingbirds. Famed artist and ornithologist John James Audubon called them "a glittering fragment of a rainbow." To invite them into your yard is to bring a tiny miracle into the garden.

There are about 320 species of hummingbirds and all of them live in the Americas. Fifteen kinds are found in North America, but only the ruby-throated hummingbird nests in Florida; that's the one you'll see if you create a hummingbird garden.

Hummingbirds are the smallest of birds. The ruby-throat weighs in at about one-quarter of an ounce. Despite their tiny size, they have enormous appetites. Hummingbirds feed every 10 to 15 minutes from dawn until dusk. Each day they eat more than half their weight in food and drink eight times their weight in water. So that they won't starve during the night, their heart rate and body temperature drop to conserve energy.

Adult hummingbirds feed primarily on flower nectar. The young are fed small insects by their parents, but switch to a mostly nectar diet by the time they leave the nest. Nectar is an energy-rich food that is rapidly burned off. Each hummingbird needs the amount of nectar found in 1,000 fuchsia blossoms daily to maintain its body weight. Therefore, your garden must be large enough to contain plenty of nectar-rich flowers.

The ideal plant for catching a hummingbird's eye has red, orange, or pink tubular flowers that are either large and solitary or hang in loose, drooping clusters. The color red and its various shades stand out among vegetation and attract the bird's attention. Young hummingbirds quickly learn to seek out deep, tubular flowers and they develop a lifetime attraction to red. In fact, any red-colored objects draw hummingbirds.

The birds will feed from flowers of many colors, but successful hummingbird gardens are designed to maximize the color red.

Red provides the initial attraction, but the availability of nectar is what keeps the tiny birds returning.

Generally, tubular flowers hold large amounts of nectar at their base.

Scent is unimportant because hummingbirds depend on sight rather than smell to locate their food.

Target the season

Besides the color and shape of the blossoms, an important consideration when choosing plants is their blooming season. It does no good if your hummingbird garden bursts into bloom when the birds are not around.

In the Tampa Bay region, hummingbirds generally arrive around March and depart southward by late October.

In densely urban areas, they aren't likely to nest and may be present only during spring and fall migrations.

Use plants adapted to your growing conditions so they won't require pesticides to keep them healthy. If flowers are sprayed, their nectar usually is contaminated, too, and could poison hummingbirds that feed on it.

Also, recent research has shown that hummingbird adults and nestlings feed extensively on small insects such as gnats, aphids and spiders.

Reducing the number of insects in your yard will greatly reduce that vital food source.

Your garden should be in a well-defined area of the yard and should include a variety of flower types, each planted in mass. Don't scatter the plants around your property.

If you have nesting hummingbirds, however, you may wish to plant more than one garden. Nesting hummers are very territorial around their food source and will chase all other birds away.

Having two distinct gardens in different areas of your yard might allow for more birds to use them.

Be careful not to plant your garden too near a window. Reflective windows look like open sky to birds.

Hummingbirds travel at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, so window collisions likely would kill them.

Plant height and spacing also are important. Shorter plants should be used at the outer edges of the garden, with taller plants in the center or at the back, to provide birds with much easier access to all the blooms.

Hummingbirds also need space between flowers to hover efficiently. If the flower stalks are densely crowded, birds will be able to feed only around the outer edges of the planting.

Added touches

When planning your hummingbird garden, you will need to consider a few other habitat needs.

Hummers build their nests in a wide variety of situations, from just a few feet above the ground to at least 90 feet high.

They usually choose a site that provides good cover, is near a stream or other moving water, near the tips of slender branches and never far from a reliable food source.

They frequently use willows and elms. The "down" from willow seeds provides ideal nesting material.

Bathing sites are also important. You can create a hummingbird bath by partly filling a shallow bird bath, allowing rain water to collect in the foliage of bromeliads, or just attaching a misting nozzle to a garden hose and timing it to go off for short periods at regular intervals.

Many people who want to attract hummingbirds invest in a feeder, but do not consider its impact.

Feeders are good for supplementing a hummingbird flower garden or for giving a meal to birds that are only "passing through," but they should not be the sole source of food in your yard.

The feeder's sugar solution may appeal to a hummingbird's sweet tooth, but it provides little nourishment. (Nectar is much more than sugar and water.)

If you wish to use a feeder and make your own "nectar," mix three parts water and one part granulated white sugar. Boil the solution and store it in the refrigerator.

Never use honey instead, because it sometimes harbors a deadly fungus that could kill the birds.

The best solution is a commercially prepared hummingbird food (sold at some garden centers) because it contains necessary nutrients found in natural flower nectar.

Hummingbird feeders must be cleaned thoroughly with a weak vinegar/water solution (not a detergent) every three to four days. In our climate, bacteria grow rapidly.

Cleanliness is vital to the health of your hummingbird visitors.

Craig Huegel is an urban wildlife biologist who works for the Pinellas County environmental management department as manager of the Brooker Creek Preserve in northern Pinellas.

HUMMINGBIRD PLANTS - A GARDEN GUIDE

Common name Botanical name Flowers in:

TREES

Red buckeye - N Aesculus pavia Spring

Mimosa Albizia julibrissin Spring

Bottlebrush Callistemon species (spp) Spring/summer

SHRUBS

Coral bean - N Erythrina herbacea Spring

Firebush - N Hamelia patens Spring to winter

Hibiscus (some are N) Hibiscus spp Spring to winter

Lantana - N Lantana spp Spring to winter

Turk's cap Malvaviscus arboreus Spring to fall

Firespike Odontonema stricta Summer/fall

Cardinal's guard Pachystachys coccinea Summer/fall

Azalea (some are N) Rhododendron spp Spring

Necklace pod - N Sophora tomentosa Spring to fall

Spanish bayonet - N Yucca aloifolia Spring/summer

Bear grass - N Yucca filamentosa Spring/summer

VINES

Cross vine - N Bignonia capreolata Spring

Trumpet vine - N Campsis radicans Spring to fall

Cypress vine Ipomoea quamoclit Summer/fall

Coral honeysuckle - N Lonicera sempervirens Spring to fall

PERENNIALS

Aloe Aloe spp Spring to winter

Shrimp plant Justicia brandegeana Spring/summer

Jacobinia Justicia carnea Spring to fall

Kalanchoe Kalanchoe spp Spring to winter

Lion's ear Leonotis leonurus Spring to fall

Cardinal flower - N Lobelia cardinalis Summer/fall

Golden shrimp plant Pachystachys lutea Spring to fall

Penstemon (some are N) Penstemon spp Spring/summer

Firecracker plant Russelia equisetiformis Spring to winter

Red sage - N Salvia coccinea Spring to fall

Salvia (some are N) Salvia spp Spring to fall

ANNUALS

Snapdragon Antirrhinum spp Spring to fall

Standing cypress - N Ipomopsis rubra Fall

Four o'clock Mirabilis jalapa Fall

Red-hot poker (Tritoma)Kniphofia waria Spring

N = native to Florida. Others are non-natives adapted to our climate.

This list is by no means complete. Hummingbirds may be attracted to many other plants as well. Scientific names are given because common names vary greatly and can be confusing. Make sure you are getting the plant you want.

Moisture-loving plants (such as cardinal flower) and drought-tolerant ones should not be used in the same location. Use plants with similar growing requirements that are adapted to your conditions.

_CRAIG HUEGEL

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