By Vicki J. Brown, NRS 2017

Ruby-throated hummingbird nectaring on Scarlet Bee Balm

When I moved to New Hampshire, I cheerfully accepted my husband's challenge to attract hummingbirds. He'd tried for years but had not succeeded in getting them to visit feeders. Little did we know how deceptively easy it is to attract nature's winged jewels. Nor did we realize then that meeting the hummingbird challenge would forever change the way we viewed our yard.

Hummingbird Feeder Pros and Cons

Perhaps you had the same problem? You put out a hummingbird feeder and waited. And waited. But no hummingbirds arrived to enjoy the sugar water?

Those cute red feeders with suction cup-like tubes do indeed work. If you don't yet enjoy regular hummingbird visitors, putting one up in spring is likely to catch the eye of a returning adult male, who is seeking to establish his territory before the females arrive about two weeks later. A feeder also provides much needed energy at a time when food resources are scarce. Once hummingbirds find it, you're likely to see them tanking up from the feeder quite often.

Yet a hummingbird feeder isn't a "set it out and forget it" endeavor. Like a bluebird nest box, we found it requires a significant commitment. You must:

  1. Make the right nectar (it’s a simple mix of 1 cup water and ¼ cup white sugar, brought to a boil and cooled)
  2. Clean the feeder and change the nectar every few days in the summer and every 4-5 days when it’s cooler. Mold and fungus can be fatal to hummingbirds. Even a completely sterile feeder gets contaminated as soon as a hummingbird inserts its bill and tongue into the feeding port.
  3. Avoid using red dye, brown sugar, honey, molasses or syrup. These ingredients are unsafe for hummingbird consumption.

We put the hummingbird feeder out in late April/early May; exact timing is based on hummingbird migration (tracked via Journey North).

Natural Hummingbird Magnets

Another reliable way to attract NH’s only hummingbird, the ruby-throated hummingbird, is to follow nature’s lead and provide the nectar plants that they've eaten for hundreds of years. These plants, native to NH and New England, have the characteristic red, tubular flowers that hummingbirds prefer. Their long evolutionary association with these plants makes them hummingbird magnets.

We had good success with these four native plants, which provide nectar throughout the year, until hummingbirds migrate south in the fall:

  • Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is the first to bloom.
  • Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) provides nectar throughout the summer.
  • Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is a wonderful native vine which blooms profusely, with two flushes of flowers which seem irresistible to hummingbirds.
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a striking late summer/early fall bloomer, is often seen on river banks and in marshy areas but seems to grow well in normal soil in a garden setting.

Starting a Hummingbird Garden

Start with scarlet bee balm. Aim for a patch of four square feet, or at least 3 plants. Then add plants over time in such a way that you eventually have blooms in all three seasons.

That’s what we did three years ago. We placed six scarlet bee balm plants in front of our house – right in front of our glider, in fact. That “sit spot” has given us hours of delight as we watch the winged jewels hover, nectar, dip, dart, chase intruders and perform the dramatic courtship dive.

Our hummingbird garden(s) grew over time:

  • Around the same time as the bee balm, we planted an 18-inch high coral honeysuckle vine and trained it to grow up a trellis. It has surpassed our wildest expectations. In three years, it has grown up the eight-foot trellis, allowing us to see the hummingbirds – sometimes inches away! -- while we eat dinner on the deck.
  • We expanded the original front garden to include spring-flowering red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis). The native columbine is a reliable self-seeder: we now have 12 plants from my original three. The new columbine plants, which bloom in their second year, provide a lovely natural ground cover with pretty three-lobed leaves, like clover but larger.
  • We divide the hardy stand of bee balm every spring before they are 6 inches high, and now have three separate patches of bee balm in our yard.
  • We added three cardinal flowers in three different spots two years ago.

Note: Ask for and purchase straight native species, vs. cultivars, whenever possible.  While more “native wild” vs. “native cultivar” studies need to be conducted, some scientists believe that native wild-types maximize the ecological function of your plants.

Hummingbird Habitat

Hummingbirds don't survive on nectar alone. Like most birds, they need protein-rich insects, such as gnats, mosquitoes and aphids, to feed their young. They also require water, shelter and a place to raise their young.

Beyond flowers, ideal hummingbird habitat includes:

  • Trees. For cover, nesting, and a steady source of insects. Oak, birch and willow trees all support more than 300 species of caterpillars each.
  • Water. With diminutive legs that don’t allow walking or hopping, hummingbirds can’t use bird baths. They often bathe in morning dew or the pools of droplets that collect on leaves. A mister, sprinkler or drip fountain are attractive water sources for hummingbirds, especially on hot summer afternoons.
  • Perches. Hummingbirds like to perch on the end of exposed branches to rest, preen, hunt, and watch for danger. Territorial males use perches as “watch towers” to defend favorite flowers and feeders. If you don’t have existing sticks and small branches on bushes and trees nearby, you can place a dead branch in the ground 30-50 feet away.
  • No pesticides.
  • Neighbors with hummingbird-friendly yards. An entire corridor of habitat is much more valuable than scattered patches.

Hummingbird Garden Benefits

The benefits of hummingbird-friendly yards are many:

  1. Now that the plants are established, we don’t water them. Ever!

  2. Because they are perennials (or biennial in the case of the cardinal flower), we don’t plant annuals in the spring or summer. We spend more time enjoying the garden, not working in it.

  3. Native plants strengthen the food web for all wildlife. Scores of critters lower on the food chain benefit as well. Native plant areas:
  • Provide nectar to other pollinators, including bumblebees
  • Serve as larval host plants for pollinators. The coral honeysuckle, for instance, is a host plant, providing food for the caterpillar stage of the Spring Azure butterfly and Snowberry Clearwing moth.
  • Provide food for many birds and small mammals, including goldfinch, quail, purple finch, hermit thrush and American robin
  • Give shelter to butterflies, bees and other pollinators, which overwinter in hollow perennial stems and underneath leaves on the ground
  1. We learned that our yard can be valuable wildlife habitat. Consequently, we are less enamored with grass and a vast lawn, planting alternative groundcover plants and allowing clover and dandelion to grow and flower for bees.

  2. We have daily entertainment. What a wonderful window into the world of hummingbirds. We hope you sit back and enjoy the show, too.

Suggested Resources:

Vicki J. Brown traded life as a marketing executive in Boston for NH’s woods, waters and wildlife in 2016. A Founding Organizer for Pollinator Pathways, a NH Natural Resources Steward, and a Coverts Volunteer, Vicki is slowly turning her lawn into pollinator and wildlife habitat.


Urban and Community Natural Resources Field Specialist
Office: Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824