It can be just a flash at the corner of your vision, a tiny, hovering body suspended between a blur of wings, and then it’s gone.
Spotting a hummingbird can sometimes feel like you’re trying to capture lightning in a photo: By the you see it, it’s already halfway to disappearing.
But there are ways you can make your yard more attractive to the Ruby-throated variety that appears in Central Pennsylvania backyards, and increase your chances of keeping a nesting pair around to raise the next generation.
Of the 14 hummingbird species found to breed in the United States, says Aaron Haines, “only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is consistently found in the Eastern United States.”
Haines, an associate professor of biology at Millersville University, says you might spot other hummingbird species here on rare occasion: the rufous, Allen’s, Anna’s, calliope (the appearance of one of these caused a birding stir back in 2012, according to LNP’s archives), Bahama Woodstar and Black-chinned hummingbirds. But it’s the Ruby-throated that local birders — and gardeners — yearn to spot.
And there are ways, say Haines and Penn State Master Gardener Holly List, to make your yard more of a potential hummingbird haven. The plants you choose, and the habitat you create, will go a long way toward luring the minuscule birds to stay a while.
Hummingbird favorites usually have long, tubular flowers and lots of concentrated nectar.
Step 1: The plants
There are two factors which will make your yard hummingbird-friendly, List says: the plants themselves, and the overall habitat.
Tubular blooms make it easier for hummingbirds to insert their long, slender beaks in search of nectar. Another bonus: They’re often a really good source of ample nectar. If you're aiming to boost your hummingbird sightings, then, make sure you include flowers with long, hollow, tube-like blooms.
Some of List’s favorites from her own yard include Lobelia cardinalis, or cardinal flower; salvia — especially an intense blue variety called “Black and Blue” — columbine; monarda; petunias, impatiens; and trees such as redbud, crabapple and other apple trees in general.
Next, look at the color of the blooms you’re planting. Though Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will feed from flowers of most colors, Haines says, they often gravitate toward orange, pink and, especially, red.
Finally, consider planning out your flowers so least one of the hummingbirds’ nectar sources is in bloom at all times.
That means perhaps getting feeders installed and filled in early spring, she says, before even the earliest bloomers, such as redbud trees, have started. Hummingbirds expend astonishing amounts of energy, so they’ll need to replenish as soon as they arrive in the area, and feed often.
Early columbines and lobelia can then help hummingbirds straddle the fickle Central Pennsylvania spring, and then tubular warm-weather flowers can take over for summer feeding.
Finally, List suggests, pay special attention to plants which fulfill those characteristics and also are native to this area. Cultivars and non-native plants may not contain the nectar that generations of Ruby-throated hummingbirds have come to depend upon when they’re in the area.
“A goal of 50% native (plants) is a good one to aim for,” List says.
Step 2: How you plant
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are very territorial, List says. “They don’t really bond even if they’re in mating pairs,” she says.
So planting all of your hummingbird-luring plants in one spot in the yard may limit how many end up visiting.
Instead, suggests List, spread them out in several patches if space allows, giving each hummingbird its own sense of territory.
Other locations that are attractive to the winged visitors, Haines says, include the edges of deciduous and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests. “These habitats are often near sources of water,” Haines says, “and provide nectar-bearing flowers and small insects/arthropods for feeding, with trees and shrubs for shelter and perching.”
How can you duplicate that in your own yard?
Small water features — even a bird bath — can be helpful. Spots of sunlight to help the tiny creatures stay warm. Shorter and lower shrubs and trees, near the water and nectar sources, so feeding baby hummingbirds is a bit easier for the parents. Those shrubs and trees also provide shelter to the insects that form part of the hummingbirds’ diet.
Making the effort, says Haines, the Millersville University professor, isn’t just worth it for bird watchers. Having hummingbirds in your yard is good for pollination, too — something that fertilizes plants and helps them reproduce.
“The Penn State Extension office has found that at least 19 species of native plants in the northeastern United States are pollinated primarily by hummingbirds,” Haines says. “These include spotted touch-me-not ... cardinal flower, fly honeysuckle... columbine and wild bergamot.”
Between pollination and personal love of hummingbirds, List says, it’s an effort worth making. And, she adds, you can “start small ... you don’t really need a big yard.
“Can people identify what helps nature’s creatures and what doesn’t, and set that change into motion?”
The end result, she says, may be more wildlife in general — and, if you’re lucky, the darting apparition of a hummingbird in motion.