rufous hummingbird

A Rufous hummingbird.

Hummingbirds in your garden provide visual and auditory entertainment as they flit and perch, showing their shimmery colors and aggressive protectiveness.

You’ll learn to identify the unique clicking sounds that indicate their presence, either communicating from a perch or chasing an intruder. Being both pollinators and insectivores, they actively contribute to the health of your garden as well as its visual delights. Once they learn there are plants and hummingbird feeders, perhaps even heated ones for the winter, you may have resident birds as well as visitors.

In the Yakima area, there are migratory hummingbirds, such as the Rufous, that we see in the summer, and the Anna’s, which seems to be trying to live here year-round. Apparently the Anna’s population has exploded, partly because there are so many gardens; it remains to be seen if they will stay here long term or decide that the winter is too harsh.

You may want to keep a pair of binoculars by your window, as the beauty of the hummingbird can change radically depending on how the light hits its head. One second you may see a dull, dark-headed bird, but as it changes position, the neck and head will become a brilliant metallic orange/reddish shimmer.

Differing from season to season, male to female, maturation and individual differences, it can be quite a challenge to identify which types of hummingbirds are visiting. Along with your binoculars, you might want a good hummingbird guide, or even an app on your phone. (The added fun of an app is that you can hear the clicking sounds, which will help you begin to recognize when hummingbirds are around.) One such phone app is the Merlin Bird ID app from Cornell Labs.

You can feed hummingbirds in your gardens by having feeders, flowers and water sources as well as insects. Their elongated tapered beak and bifurcated (forked) tongue allow them to feed on nectar deep within flowers. That little tongue can consume nectar at about 13 licks per second. So if you put out hummingbird feeders, be prepared to maintain them by frequently cleaning them and changing the sugar water.

Homemade nectar can be made from four parts boiled water to one part white granulated sugar. Boil the water before measuring to ensure that the ratio of sugar to water remains at 1 to 4. Fill the feeders when the solution is cool.

Flowers that attract hummingbirds are typically shaped in a way to accommodate their wings and long beaks. Most flower labels let you know if they attract hummingbirds. They are initially attracted by red, but they will also dine on other colors once in the area. As their forehead rubs against the stamens and pistils of the flowers, the pollen accumulates and is deposited from flower to flower.

Because of their need for frequent nourishment, these little birds are very confrontational. They bully one another as they compete for food and perch in nearby flowering bushes to guard their territories. (They seem to like little dead branches that give them a clear view — and likewise you a better view.)

Courtship brings the activity to a new level. The males dive and give shuttle flight displays while raising their gorget (gore-jet) feathers and emitting shrill sounds. When the male finds a ready female, he entices her by flying in front of her in short rapid arcs, posturing, buzzing and whistling.

As a rule, male hummingbirds do not contribute to the building of nests or caring for young. The neatly woven cup-shaped nest is built by the female in a tree. Producing two to three broods a year, the mother spends her time catching small insects and spiders that she regurgitates to feed her babies.

Select plants that have blooms throughout more than one season and several varieties to provide flowers as long as possible. Adding hummingbird feeders helps them get sustenance when flowers are not in bloom, as in the winter, which is especially difficult for them. Heated hummingbird feeders make sure the nectar doesn’t freeze, though providing the insect protein becomes a bigger challenge. Since Anna’s are fairly new to the Cascade climate, it is unclear whether they will adjust and stay year-round.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy their presence and encourage their stay in your gardens. Hummingbirds have good memories, so chances are once they find your garden, they will return.