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Gardening: Make your home sweet for hummingbirds

I had my red sweatshirt on out in the garden last weekend and I got buzzed by a curious hummingbird. He checked me out as a source of nectar and disappeared as quickly as he had come.

I’m guessing it was a male because they are the first to show up each spring. They arrive before the females to stake out their territory and scout out food sources. The females usually arrive about a week later. Then the fun begins. Once they discover each other, they begin a series of wild courtship flights as the males try to impress potential mates. They will swoop and dive around each other; the male often flies straight up and then straight down, almost hitting the ground. Once all the courting is done they will build a tiny nest in the nearby brushy thicket.

The most common hummingbirds we see in Eastern Washington are the Rufous and Calliope with occasional Black-Chinned and Anna’s hummingbirds. Once a pair of birds have established themselves in your garden, their offspring will return every year.

For their size, hummingbirds are big eaters. It takes a lot of energy to beat their wings 200 times a second as they fly at an average speed of about 27 mph – 40 if they want to hustle. They eat half their body weight in nectar and insects and eight times their weight in water every day.

Hummingbird feeders are usually glass or plastic bottles fitted with red plastic feeding tubes or a sipping platform. Red is the hummingbird’s favorite color and they will seek it out. Hang feeders where you can watch them but out of the direct sun or the easy reach of cats. Mine are hung under the eve of our front porch.

Making hummingbird nectar is simple. Mix four parts water to one part white table sugar and let the sugar dissolve completely. Store excess in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Don’t use brown or cane sugar, honey or artificial sweeteners as the birds need the pure sucrose found in white sugar. Do not add red food coloring and skip buying commercial nectar mixes with coloring in them. The dye can be harmful to the birds. Change nectar every week in cooler weather and every four to five days in the hot summer weather to keep it fresh.

To encourage them to stick around, make your yard a good place to stay. Plant brushy, shrubby bushes, small trees and dense evergreens of any type around your property to provide nesting and roosting spots. The female hummingbird will build her golf-ball size nest out of moss, lichens and sculpted plant parts all held together with spider webs in the lower branches of these bushes. Plant a variety of flowering plants that bloom at different times through the season to provide more sources of nectar. Don’t be too zealous with insecticides; hummingbirds eat great quantities of bugs as a protein source.

Pat Munts has gardened in Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@inlandnw