Flying Jewels

How to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Yard This Spring

A hummingbird guru spills the juice…errrrr…nectar on attracting them to your yard.

By Gwendolyn Knapp March 29, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Amy Kinkead

Local attorney Donald Burger wasn’t always the guy to contact during hummingbird season. Foremost he’s a rose person, thanks to the hybrid tea roses that came with his current Queen Anne-style home in the Heights, which he moved into in 1995—“I said, I’ve got to learn how to do this. So I joined the Houston Rose Society.” Today he has over 100 kinds of roses, along with a vegetable garden, a pond, a rock garden, a veritable citrus grove, and even bees (in fact, he’s also the beekeeper featured in a video in HMNS’s insect wing, wouldn’t you know it?). But early on in this gardening journey, before he’d ever thought of getting into roses, he tells us, “I spotted my first hummers, almost always on the hamelia plants.” He became sort of obsessed with the delicate creatures.

For most Houstonian birders, a migratory ruby-throated hummingbird is the crown jewel of seasonal bird sightings. And the window to catch them is relatively slim: These prolific pollinators typically arrive for up to three weeks in April and up to eight weeks in August or September as they make their way to South America, the Rockies, and back again. Their tiny metallic green, white, and red bodies (roughly the weight of a penny or two paper clips) rocket all about Houston’s blooming yards in the mornings and evenings—and they can magically hover in place as long as they want, too. “It’s one of the prettiest hummers, so that’s nice,” Burger says. But he also loves what the birds do for certain plants in his yard, especially flowers with tubular shapes. “The bees can’t get down in there to pollinate. The hummers do a good job of that.”

After planting more shrubs, trees, and flowers to attract the birds, he also launched Hummingbirds in Houston, which drew the attention of fellow hummingbird fanatics. The beginning was modest, a decidedly lo-fi site to share what he’d learned as he planted and calculated ways to get the dazzling, somewhat elusive birds to convene in his garden. “I put up a couple of articles,” he says. He’s also logged every sighting he’s had of the season’s first hummer since 1993—42 at least. “And I kept getting emails all the time,” says Burger, although he makes a point of responding. Mostly the queries are from people wondering why they can’t get hummingbirds on their feeders.

The reason is simple enough: “Well, they don’t live here year-round,” he explains. “They’re a two-season bird.”

Want to see them yourself? Follow Burger’s tips for attracting these beauties to your own yard (or patio ... it’s possible!) this spring and fall—a gift for you, and probably for Burger, too, since he does still get dozens of emails per season. Sigh.

Plant the right stuff.

“I found that the hamelia—hummingbird bush, as it’s commonly called— is the best plant to put in your yard to attract hummers,” he says. “When I first spot them, it’s almost always on these plants, resting there, and going to the feeders like it’s almost dessert.” Burger believes the birds—who live three to five years and migrate about 4,000 miles per seasonal trip on average—always return on the same routes and to the very same gardens. They prefer orange and red, trumpet-shaped flowers (like the hamelia’s). “I know they’re going to go to that bush every year.”

Know your feeder.

“I’ve tried out scores of different feeders,” Burger says. His favorite? “Mostly the Perky-Pet Four Fountains Hummingbird Feeder.” It’s easy to clean and most hardware stores sell it. Place the feeders near your best hummingbird plants in mid-March for spring, and the first week of August for fall. “If you put your feeder up in the summer, you won’t get any,” he warns.

Keep the sugar water clean.

“If they don’t like the taste, they won’t come back to that feeder, so it’s important to clean it,” he says. Change the liquid once a week in the spring, and twice a week in fall when the heat can bring on black sooty mold. Pour out the old liquid (you might have to scrub the feeder a little with a toothbrush if there’s mold) and refill with solution—one part sugar, four parts filtered water. Boil for two minutes and cool.

Enjoy the show.

“Hummingbirds are fun to watch,” Burger says. “They spend a lot of time trying to keep each other from getting the nectar, sort of buzz bombing each other.” He suggests having a few nectar sources to help (e.g., feeders like the Perky Pet that can handle several birds at once). And do stop and listen, too. “They make a distinctive sort of chirping sound as they’re buzzing around. And when I hear that sound, I know they’re in the area.” 

Yes, hummingbirds will visit a patio, too.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to have a yard,” says Burger. “I’ve seen friends that have covered patios and they’ll put a feeder up on them and they’ll get plenty of hummingbirds that way.”

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