Who Could Hate Hummingbirds?
By Sandy Metzger, Master Gardener
The other day I was reminded of a woman who allegedly hates hummingbirds.
"They're so aggressive," she says. "When I go outside, I have to bring a tennis
racquet with me." Oh no! They can't weigh but an ounce. The only protein they eat
are tiny, tiny insects. Would they peck out her eyeball with their slim curved
bill? Maybe they'd fly up her nose, or into her ear. Perhaps she just has a phobia
about little creatures beating their wings one to two hundred times per second in front of her face, fanning the loose tendrils of her hair.
To me, hummingbirds are truly "flying jewels", or joyas voladores, the
name early Spanish explorers used upon first seeing these little iridescent birds,
indigenous to only the Americas. How fortunate we are in Sonoma County to have
many over-winter each year (Anna's) and others return year after arduous migrating
year to the very same garden, expecting the very same flowers and feeders to be
there. And most of us do not disappoint, so anxious we are to have them grace our
There are approximately 340 hummingbird species today, 16 of which
actually breed in the United States. As our human population has spread along with
its interest in gardening, so have the distribution and range of hummingbirds. For
instance, Anna's Hummingbird, once restricted to only Southern California, parts
of the Sierra Nevada, and the San Francisco Bay Area, has now spread up into
coastal Oregon and Washington, southwestern British Columbia, and Arizona.
One could love hummingbirds for the beauty of their plumage and their
fanciful aerobatics alone! But as they dip their extended bills down the long
tubular throats of their favorite flowers for nectar, they become accidental
pollinators, too. In withdrawing nectar from the flower, they get a dusting of
pollen to carry forward to the female stigma of the next bloom. Spending fewer
than three or four seconds at a flower, they can pollinate hundreds and hundreds
of flowers each day.
How thrilled I have been when out in the garden, wearing a red baseball
cap or red T-shirt, to have a hummer fly right up to me to inspect the redness of
my clothing as if it could be secreting nectar for their consumption. Or to hover
in the fine spray of the hose as I'm hand-watering some containers. Or to wait
expectantly six inches from my hands as I'm re-hanging the feeder I've just
cleaned and filled. To bat it away with a tennis racquet? Never.
However, on several occasions I've had to use the long-handled pool
skimmer to coax them out of our garage, where once inside, they can't seem to fly
low and out again. One time, I accidentally nicked a poor little hummer, causing
it to fall to the garage floor, its feathers flying every which way. Did I kill
her? Or him? (Color of plumage is not gender-linked.) It looked up at me so
pathetically, so imploringly. I gently picked it up, took it to the feeder, stuck
its little bill into the slot for a slurp of my homemade 4:1 sugar water for a few
seconds, and voilå, away s/he flew! I rejoiced (and did not lose an eye in the
Except for butterflies, there's nothing more that I like to attract into
the garden than hummingbirds. And it's an easy thing—just plant the flowers that
provide nectar and they will come: Penstemons, Ribes ssp., Mimulus, Salvia ssp.,
Lobelia latifolium, Campsis radicans, Heuchera (Coral Bells), Epilobium ssp.,
Phygelius capensis, Fuchsias, Woolly Blue Curls, Aquilegia formosa, Nicotiana,
Lupin, Larkspur, Agastache ssp., Abutilon, and Honeysuckle, to name a few.
But let's face it, hummers can be aggressive—with each other. They can be
possessive of their perceived own little patch of flowers or hanging feeder and
bully all the timid ones out of the way. And the female can certainly be
aggressive when it comes to driving other hummers, even the sire of her two
babies, away from the nest.
But here's some advice to hummingbird haters. Wear sunglasses. Do not wear
a red hat or shirt. Do not use a fine hose spray when watering. Do not plant any
tubular flowers. Hang no hummingbird feeders. Use a lot of toxic pesticides,
herbicides, and insecticides. Clean your windows very well so hummers smash into
them. Let the cat out. Me? I always worry about the over-wintering hummers in cold
weather, regardless of the fact that they can go into a nightly torpor to lower
their metabolism to conserve energy. But the same six who hung around the feeders
until the last bit of light seem always to be right there the next morning. I want
it to be Spring, I want flowers to bloom so the little flying jewels, flitting and
twitting with spirited antics in their search for sustenance, will find the
natural nectar they need. Each day I am rewarded with their presence.
What's not to love?