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Hummingbird

A hummingbird sips nectar.

Most gardeners are delighted when they see a hummingbird darting around their flowers.

They are relatively small birds, weighing no more than a penny. But if the hummingbird stays still long enough, gardeners in Illinois are likely to see it is a ruby-throated hummingbird with a green back and gray-white belly. Colors can range from shades of green, to black, to white. The male has a bright red patch on his neck and throat called the gorget. The stiff gorget feathers look dull until they catch the light and reveal their metallic splendor.

A hummer’s beak indicates what type of flowers they prefer: Narrow, tubular, and long enough to get to the bottom of a flower where the nectar pools. Their grooved tongue laps up the sweet juices.

Their constant motion indicates they require lots of nectar. When they are seen, their flight is almost inconceivable, darting up, down, backward, then stopping in mid-flight, beating their wings 50 times per second. They hover over the nectar source in a blur. A hummingbird will typically consume more than their body's weight in nectar each day.

The nectar is required to fuel the hummer’s hunt for insects. Or the insects are required to fuel their search for nectar. All that we really need to know as gardeners is that they require both. They are attracted to tubular red flowers, but will visit many garden blooms in a wide range of colors, as long as they produce a lot of nectar. Gardeners looking to invite hummingbirds to their gardens should plant for blooms in every season.

In spring, choose columbine, fire pinks, catmint, red buckeye, bleeding heart and weigela.

Summer attractors include phlox, red-hot poker, beardtongue, agastache, coral honeysuckle, coral-bells, salvia, agastache, hollyhock, lobelia and bee balm.

For fall feeding, use cardinal flower and trumpet creeper.

Include the following annuals: petunias, impatiens, fuchsia, Mexican sunflower, pineapple sage, salvia, cypress vine, cuphea, cleome, scarlet runner bean, shrimp plant and zinnias.

Hummingbirds require large shrubs, deciduous trees, coniferous trees, or trellised vines 10 to 30 feet above ground to make their nests. The female constructs her nest out of dandelions, thistles, pine resin adorned with moss or lichens, encircled with pieces of spider web. The spider web allows the tiny nest to expand with the growing young. After courtship, she will lay two eggs that will hatch in about two weeks.

Many gardeners choose to put out feeders to keep the hummingbirds coming back. To make nectar, add one cup of sugar to four cups of boiling water. Stir until sugar dissolves, cool the solution, and fill your feeders. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to one week. Red food coloring is not necessary and Cornell Lab of Ornithology strongly recommends against it, as it may harm hummingbirds.

Kelly Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.