Life in the Garden

Welcome spring with the return of the hummingbirds

By Cindy and Ed Moura
Posted 3/26/24

For those impatiently watching for new signs of life in the garden, the annual return of hummingbirds is one of the most eagerly anticipated springtime events. Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in …

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Life in the Garden

Welcome spring with the return of the hummingbirds


For those impatiently watching for new signs of life in the garden, the annual return of hummingbirds is one of the most eagerly anticipated springtime events. Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world, and since ancient times much fascination and folklore has surrounded them.

Mayans believed them to be the sun in disguise appearing in hummingbird form to court the moon. Myths and legends depict them as both healer and spirit, beacons of positivity and the embodiment of endurance and grit.

That grit is what guides Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on a 2,000-mile spring migration from their winter home in South America back here to the East Bay; many returning to the exact same spot where they were born. They fly solo, and the journey includes an 18-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico. You can watch migration progress on educational citizen science sites such as 

A few feathered jewels will begin passing through our area in early April, and most will be here ready for another nesting season by early May. Hummingbird feeders filled with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water create a welcome boost for weary travelers. If you hang a feeder, be sure to clean it frequently, as harmful bacteria can form quickly.

But hummingbirds need more than sugar water to successfully raise the next generation of spirited visitors. Hummingbirds, like all our pollinators, need spaces that mimic natural habitats; abundant gardens of native plants, nectar rich flowers, plentiful insects, nesting materials, and places to perch.

When planting for hummingbirds, prioritize native perennials, which peer reviewed studies conducted by the Audubon Society prove attract more hummingbirds. Plant densely and in groupings — this is best for pollinators and also creates an appealing design.

Include a wide diversity of perennials to achieve season-long bloom. A lineup of things like Bee Balm, Wild Bleeding Hearts, Cardinal Flower, Columbine, Coral Honeysuckle, Foam Flower, Garden Phlox, Milkweed, Penstemon, Turtlehead and Ironweed will give you those results. Layer in showy annual flowers that are native to hummingbird southern migration paths, such as Begonia, Cuphea, Fuchsia, Nicotiana and Garden Salvia.

In the herb garden, include Anise Hyssop, Lavender, Lemon Verbena, and Pineapple Sage; they all have wonderful medicinal and culinary uses and supply natural nectar to hummingbirds.

An ideal habitat has layers, so think from the ground up when planting. Adding native trees and shrubs of varying heights to your yard has many benefits, and this includes offering perching and nesting spots for hummingbirds. River birch, Eastern Redbud, Witch Hazel, and Native Flowering Dogwood are favorite perching trees, while nectar rich Fothergilla, Itea, New Jersey Tea, Summersweet and Swamp Azaela are top picks for shrubs.

Most beneficial things, including hummingbirds, do best in yards where organic materials like leaves are not all whisked and blown away. Hummingbird nests include down from milkweed, mosses, fern bits and young leaves that they weave together and attach to the end of a tree limb with several yards of sticky spider webs.

You read that right, spider webs are key to hummingbird nest making. Welcome spiders to your garden since their webs are providing the very glue that holds the hummingbird nest together. Hummingbirds not only need insects for nest building; they are also an essential food source, critical for muscle and feather development and vital to raising young.

As much as 80% of a hummingbird’s diet consists of small insects like gnats, beetles, and mosquitoes. Eliminating the use of pesticides, which include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides routinely used on lawns and in gardens is the only way to give hummingbirds and the region’s 1,600 other native pollinators a fighting chance.

Hummingbirds meet their water intake needs with nectar, but they love to splash in moving water, which also helps to clean their wings. Solar fountains, drippers or misters all create welcome water features for your visitors and are likely to attract other feathered friends as well.

Follow the tips laid out above and watch your gardens spring to life. But in the words of literary musician Leonard Cohen, “Listen to the Hummingbird, whose wings you cannot see – Listen to the hummingbird, don’t listen to me.”

“Life in the Garden” brings eco-friendly garden tips from Cindy & Ed Moura at Prickly Ed’s Cactus Patch Native Plant Emporium, where they are passionate about helping people realize the essential role everyone can play in supporting life right outside their own doors.

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