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Hummingbirds and How to Attract Them

They’ve been named wood nymphs, comets, mountain gems, fairies, sunbeams, plummeteers, sun angels and woodstars by the people who discovered them. In fact, the name hummingbird comes not from the bird’s voice, but from the “whir” of its wings whipping the air 70 to 80 times a second.

While 320 different species of hummingbirds live in North, Central and South America, only 20 grace the United States. Most of them can be found in the Southwest. In Washington, however, we can catch glimpses of the Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbird west of the Cascade Mountains, and the Rufous, Calliope and sometimes the Black-chinned Hummingbird east of the Cascade Mountains.

With the exception of Anna’s Hummingbird which stays year round, our visitors usually arrive by May and depart for warmer, flower-producing weather by October. Males arrive 2 to 3 weeks earlier than females.

The male's jewel-like throat feathers show brilliant, iridescent oranges, reds or violets when light strikes them just right. This throat patch is called a "gorget" (pronounced gor-jet) after a piece of medieval armor that protected the throat. Females lack the gorget and have mostly green backs and light bellies.

To identify hummingbirds online go to:

There are two ways to attract hummingbirds to your yard—artificially by using feeders with nectar-like sugar solutions, and naturally with flowers, shrubs and trees that produce nectaring blossoms.

A combination of both is recommended: flowering plants for their nectar and insects, and a feeder or two for your viewing pleasure.


The four species of hummingbirds that visit Washington are only 3 to 4 inches long from end to end. Their bodies are no bigger than the end joint of your thumb and they weigh no more than a nickel. Yet they expend more energy for their weight than any other animal in the world. This energy is used mainly for flying and for keeping their tiny, heat-radiating bodies warm.

Hummingbirds are like living helicopters. They can hover, fly straight up and down, sideways, backwards and even upside down. This is possible because their wings rotate from the shoulder instead of the wrist, so they get power from both the downbeat and the upbeat. While their average flight speed is 27 miles per hour, they can travel up to 50 miles per hour, with their wings beating 70-80 times a second.

Although hummers often nest in lower tree branches and bushes, people rarely notice the golf ball-sized nest. The female assumes all nesting duties. She sculpts a cup of plant parts, mosses and lichens held together with spider webs for her nest. In it she lays 2 pea-sized, white eggs and incubates them for 14 to 21 days. Once hatched, she feeds the young ones a rich diet of regurgitated nectar. After about 25 days the youngsters leave the nest to survive on their own.

In this country, hummers are eaten by kestrels, magpies, jays, crows, cats, and bullfrogs. Storms and killing frosts are also responsible for some deaths.

Most hummingbirds eat nectar from flowers for instant energy, and insects for protein to build muscle. Protein meals include aphids, small insects and spiders. Hummers meet their high energy demand by eating more than half their weight in food and drinking up to 8 times their body weight in water every day. To eat and drink, a hummingbird’s tongue is divided at the end into two rolled, muscular halves. These halves act like a double trough to soak up nectar and water, while the brushy tips of the tongue trap insects.

In cooler climates like Washington, hummingbirds gather food in their tiny crops (throat pouches) before dark. Then they slowly digest this stored food throughout the night. Hummers also lower their body temperature and heart rate at night to save energy and ensure that the food supply in their crop will last until morning.


Select feeders that have red on them somewhere to attract hummers. Feeders with several feeding ports seem to work best. Choose feeders that come apart easily so they can be cleaned thoroughly. Molds and bacteria will spoil your sugar solution after several days of hanging in warm weather.

Don’t forget to clean and change the solution in your feeders about every 4 to 5 days. Clean feeders thoroughly with a bottle brush, hot water and a little vinegar to discourage mold (do not use any soap or detergent). Don't hang out more feeders than you have time to clean and maintain. Poorly cleaned feeders are a hazard to the birds' health.

Some commercially-produced solutions offer a formula complete with vitamins and minerals. Any solutions with dye, food coloring or flavoring in them are considered unsafe and aren’t needed. Red coloring isn’t necessary because most feeders already have something red on them to attract hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds can get fatal hardening of the liver from eating a heavy sugar syrup. For that reason a solution that is no more than 1 part sugar to 4 parts water is recommended. Boil the water, stir in the sugar, and remove the solution from heat. This will retard mold growth. Let the solution cool before filling your feeder.

Don’t use honey or artificial sweeteners in your feeder. Honey helps fungus grow and contains botulism toxins that can kill hummingbirds. Birds may quickly starve to death eating artificial sweeteners because they contain no calories.

Place your hummingbird feeder where you can watch it and where it can be easily reached for cleaning and refilling. Shady spots are best for keeping the sugar solution cool, which keeps mold growth down.

Since hummers tend to fight over feeders hung close together, placing them far apart or out of sight of each other will attract more birds.

Plant or place nectar-producing blossoms near feeders so hummingbirds will also have insects and natural nectar for a more balanced diet.

If your sugar solution attracts ants, bees or wasps, apply petroleum jelly around the openings of the feeders and on the wire from which it hangs. Or try moving the feeder to another spot. Don’t use insect sprays or repellents to control insects on or around the feeder. If stinging insects are a problem, try spraying a fine mist of water from a hose onto the feeder. The water will at least chase away the insects for a while, and the hummers may enjoy the shower.


Hummingbirds are best attracted to nectar-rich plants with bright red, orange or red-orange tubular-shaped blossoms. The brightest red flowers are perhaps the most effective, so you may want to begin with these. Hummers prefer single-flowered blossoms because they have more nectar than double-flowered ones.

By planting hardy trees, shrubs, vines and perennial flowers, you'll have a more permanent hummingbird garden. Select plants that grow to be 2-feet tall or taller. This gives hummers a more comfortable level to feed at. Birds will also visit hanging potted plants if the right blossoms are available.

When planting a garden or border for hummingbirds, it’s best to put vines, tall shrubs and tall flowering plants in back, then the medium-sized plants down to the shortest plants in front. To supply birds with food throughout spring, summer and early fall, select plants that bloom at different times of the year.

Flowering Plants that Attract Hummingbirds



  • Hummingbirds and Their Flowers. 1986. Grant V. and K.A.
  • A Hummingbird's Garden: Attracting Nature's Jewel to Your Backyard. 1996. Newfield, Nancy and Barbara Nielsen
  • Hummingbird Gardening in Western Washington. Skelly, Flora Johnson and Brett Johnson. Available from Wild Words, Box 464, 23316 NE Redmond-Fall City Road, WA 09503
  • Landscaping for Wildlife, 1999. Link, Russell. University of Washington Press with the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.
  • The Hummingbird Book: The Complete Guide to Attracting, Identifying and Enjoying.1989.Stokes, Donald and Lillian.
  • The Hummingbird Garden. 1990. Tekulsky, Mathew
  • Hummingbirds in Your Garden. Thies, Elena. Elena Thies, 12536 NW Oakridge Road, Yamhill, OR 97148- 8115
  • Hummingbirds: Jewels in Flight. 1992. Toops, Connie

This urban wildlife publication was developed by the Washington Department of Wildlife's Urban Wildlife and Nongame Program, and funded by the sale of personalized license plates. Written and produced by Donna Gleisner with assistance from Stephen Penland, Patricia Thompson and Russell Link. Artwork by Nicola Yarbrough

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