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Hummingbirds Heading South


One of the most extraordinary creatures to visit local gardens is the hummingbird. There are several species of hummingbirds in the U.S., but the one most commonly seen east of the Mississippi River is the ruby throat.

It’s the male that sports the ruby-colored collar that glistens in sunlight. The females have a dullish white neck with a few gray spots. The male and female’s wings, back and tail are a dull olive, which appears to sparkle bright green in sunlight.

From August through about the first week in October, hummingbirds pass through northern Illinois in search of nectar and insects for the energy they’ll need to fly to their winter habitat, which ranges from Mexico to Central America, a journey of several hundred miles and one that requires them to fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico!

There’s still time to buy and place a feeder in your garden this month. Do it now and you might have the same visitors next spring. Here’s why: On April 6 several years ago, I stood at the kitchen sink and glanced out the window. There was a hummingbird at the arbor. I hadn’t put out the feeder yet because it was still cold and damp and the trumpet vine that had bloomed there the previous summer was bare. But this bird came and hovered at that exact spot looking for the feeder that had been there the previous fall. It was remarkable given the size of the bird’s brain and all the feeding spots it must have recalled since it made the round-trip journey.

There’s a myth that hummingbirds are only attracted to red. Right now, there are at least a dozen hummingbirds hanging around our garden. Having 12 feeders with fresh sugar water certainly attracts them, but they also visit many of the annuals and perennials that I’ve planted for butterflies, such as butterfly bush (Buddleia), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), verbena, salvia and nasturtiums. Photographer Ellen Hodges snapped these two visitors a few days ago. While hummingbirds often go to tubular-shaped flowers, like those on late-blooming hostas, they’ll take nectar from daisy-shaped flowers like this red tithonia. I sowed the seeds of this annual back in late May and it has been blooming since mid-summer.

Another hummingbird favorite is Salvia guarantica (shown above, right) and Salvia ‘Indigo Spires,’ also annuals that are the best magnets for attracting these birds to your garden.

Fun Facts:

  • Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards.
  • They can’t walk or hop — their legs are too small.
  • Their wings beat in a figure eight 53 times a second!
  • Females take care of the young.
  • They weigh less than ¼ ounce.

Sugar Water Recipe

I use four parts water and one part sugar. For one or two feeders, boil 4 cups of water and add 1 cup of sugar. Stir the mixture while it simmers for about 2 minutes. This helps prevent the liquid from fermenting. Once the liquid cools, fill the feeder with about 1 cup and refrigerate the rest. Clean the feeder out every six days or so, more frequently when the weather is hot; otherwise the water will spoil. It’s worth the effort to see these visitors in your garden.

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questions

I am sick of slugs. Perhaps if I knew their life cycle I could get rid of them. Where do they go over winter? Where do they come from? What is the best way to get rid of them?

I have read that purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are a good source of food for birds in the winter. Will they be okay if not trimmed back until spring? If so, how early should they be trimmed?

I brought a frangipani (Plumeria) back from Hawaii last April when it was just a leafless branch. It sprouted leaves and grew over summer. Now it is losing its leaves. How can I keep it growing over winter? Will it bloom?

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