Plant It and They Will Come: Hummingbirds

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Female Black-chinned Hummingbird nectaring at Zauschneria arizonica

It's Migration Time!

Hummingbirds are on the wing throughout the Rocky Mountain region, preparing to fly thousands of miles south to their winter homes. These tiny winged dynamos are focused on two things: carb-loading for the long journey , and resting up between bouts of feeding.

Four Species

Four species of hummingbirds are regularly spotted in the Rocky Mountain region: Broad-tailed, Rufous, Black-chinned and Calliope hummingbirds.

The males are pretty easy to distinguish. (Female hummingbirds, single-moms responsible for building a nest and raising young, lack the males' flashy iridescence.)

Broad-tailed males' emerald green backs and deep carmine-red throats, stand out, as does the trilling sound their wings produce in flight. They're the classic hummer of the mountain meadows in the Southern and Central Rockies.

Rufous Hummingbird in the rain, ready to defend "his" flower patch.

Rufous males are as rusty-colored as their names and as feisty. These tiny vigilantes zip about defending feeders and flower-patches against all comers.

Black-chinned Hummingbirds are named for the male's black chin, lined by a band of iridescent purple. These slender hummers are found from deserts and sagebrush country uphill into mountain forests.

Calliope Hummingbirds are North America's smallest, 3.5 inches from tip of tail to end of beak. Males' throats are streaked ruby and white, like a jeweled chest-piece.

Male Calliope perched on a tomato cage.

They Fly How Far?

Imagine weighing less than a dime and flying 5,600 miles round-trip each year between your wintering territory in Mexico and nesting habitat in the northern Great Basin, your wings beating at around 50 beats per second. That's life as a Calliope Hummingbird.

Rufous hummingbirds migrate farthest north, breeding in meadows up to central Alaska. They migrate a circular path, flying north in spring up the Pacific Coast and south  in summer along the Rockies.

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are loyal to place. They often return not just to the same valley, but to the very same tree or bush, where females may build a new nest atop their old one.

Black-chinned Hummingbirds nest as far north as British Columbia and winter as far south as central Mexico, flying "only" 3,000 to 4,000 miles round-trip each year.

Female hummingbird drinks on the wing from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla) flowers. Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Powering a High-energy Life

To fuel their long-distance lives, hummingbirds slurp flower nectar, a high-test mix of dissolved plant-sugars and minerals (along with fat-rich pollen and high-protein insects stuck in the sticky liquid). They lick nectar from flowers with their long, brush-tipped tongues (try that while hovering!) and convert it metabolic energy at about 97 percent efficiency.

A single hummingbird drinks enough nectar in a day to drown a human (on an ounce for ounce basis). The energy required to power their hovering flight means they must feed constantly throughout the day, resting only to digest and make space for more food.

Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis rubra)

Planting to Feed Hummingbirds

To attract and sustain these "jewels of the air," plant some of their favorite nectar-bearing wildflowers. (Feeders with sugar-water are fine as fast food; hummingbird plants provide more complete food, plus perches and shelter.)

Here's a short list of favorite hummingbird plants (any wildflower native to the West with red, narrowly tubular flowers is a good bet):

Plant these and listen for the whir of hovering wings as hummingbirds enliven in your yard.

(Look for these plants at your local nursery, or through our partners, Plant Select® and High Country Gardens.)

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