Cuban Bee Hummingbird, nicknamed 'Zunzuncito'. The smallest hummingbird on earth

All hummingbirds are small but the tiniest one, the Cuban bee hummingbird, measures only about 6cm (2-1/4”) in length. Of the over 300 hummingbird species in the world, only 26 can be found in Canada and the United States. As you get closer to the equator, however, the number and diversity of hummingbirds increases. Tropical Ecuador, for example, has 130 species or more.

Hummingbirds are acrobatic and proficient flyers. They can fly forward and backward, up and down, and even upside-down. Moreover, they can do it at high speeds; some say up to about 97km (60 miles) an hour. A hummingbird can flap its wings at an average of 50 times per second during normal flight. The rapid wing beats produce a distinctive humming sound; hence, the common name hummingbird. Occasionally, they are simply referred to as hummers.

Cuban Bee Hummingbird, nicknamed 'Zunzuncito'. The smallest hummingbird on earth.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding at a Wild Columbine flower (Ontario, Canada)

Hummingbirds are thought to be disproportionately intelligent for their size. These tiny birds are said to possess amazing memory, as their hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory) is greatly enlarged. It is argued that they remember their food source locations and, moreover, the last time they visited them. (Hummers can’t afford to waste energy going to a flower empty of nectar.) Additionally they seem to know how long to wait between visits so that the flowers have time to generate more nectar.

These birds possess two very well-developed senses: acute hearing and terrific vision. Besides seeing every color humans can, the hummer’s eyes can also process ultraviolet light, which humans can’t. They can also recognize and remember people. They know who refills their feeders and have been known to fly about people’s heads when feeders are empty. Hummers are also famous for hovering in front of human faces. They glare at humans with their shiny, coal-black eyes for a few seconds as if trying to memorize them.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding at a Wild Columbine flower (Ontario, Canada).

Anna's hummingbird nest (British Columbia, Canada)

Due to these tiny birds’ extremely high metabolisms, they use a vast amount of energy for their size. Consequently, they need a surprisingly large amount of food. Moreover, with their incredibly high metabolic rates, hummers have to eat at frequent intervals – every 10 minutes or so. Prolonged breaks can result in death. A hummingbird’s menu consists of tiny insects and spiders to satisfy its protein requirements. These birds are famous for their exceptional sweet tooth, though. They crave the sugary nectar of flowers. Surprisingly, these petite birds seem to have strong preferences. They opt for tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of bright red and orange. Sweet fragrance doesn’t make any difference since birds don’t possess a well-developed sense of smell.

Depending on where you live, you may encounter hummingbirds that are migrating, breeding or residing in the area year-round. Whether you live in the country, the suburbs, or a city in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Utah or Delaware, you can have a garden that attracts hummingbirds.

Anna's hummingbird nest (British Columbia, Canada).

Flowering Quince shrub (Chaenomeles speciosa) cultivar 'Texas Scarlet'

First, a garden that is all red and orange would please hummingbirds but not many gardeners. It would simply be too intense. A compromise can be achieved by adding tempering blue, violet and white to hot red and fiery orange. While planning a hummingbird garden, it’s important to realize that these birds rely on a succession of blooming flowers throughout the year to sustain them and their young.

In early spring when blooms are sparse, hummingbird can still get nectar from flowering quinces (Chaenomeles spp.), barberries (Berberis spp.) azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) and redbuds (Cercis spp.). Those woody bloomers are accompanied by early perennials such as wallflowers (Erysimum spp.) and wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis).

As spring progresses, the offering grows to include lilacs (Syringa spp.), Siberian pea shrubs (Caragana arborescens), horse chestnuts (Aesculus spp.) and some climbers such as honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) and wisterias (Wisteria spp.). These are followed by smaller perennials such as coral bells (Heuchera spp.), bleeding hearts (Lamprocapnos spp.) and Solomon’s seals (Polygonatum spp.).

Flowering Quince shrub (Chaenomeles speciosa) cultivar ‘Texas Scarlet’

Lupine (Lupinus spp.)

In early summer, more and more flowers come into bloom, sustaining a growing number of hummingbirds. Among shrubs, hummingbird favorites include weigelas (Weigela spp.), mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia), beauty bushes (Kolkwitzia amabilis) and butterfly bushes (Buddleia spp.), as well as some climbers such as clematis (Clematis spp.) and trumpet vines (Campsis spp.). These can be complemented by numerous perennials such as cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), lupines (Lupinus spp.), balloon flowers (Platycodon spp.), red-hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria), montbretias (Crocosmia spp.), bee balms (Monarda spp.), bellflowers (Campanula spp.), larkspurs (Delphinium spp.), daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) and true lilies (Lilium spp.).

Lupine (Lupinus spp.)

Silk tree (Albizia julibrissin)

Late summer offers silk trees (Albizia julibrissin), sourwoods (Oxydendrum arboreum) and roses of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), as well as late perennials such as turtleheads (Chelone glabra) and lilies-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus spp.).

In fall, hummingbirds are attracted to sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), dahlias (Dahlia spp.), bugbanes (Cimicifuga racemosa) and toad lilies (Tricyrtis spp.).

Silk tree (Albizia julibrissin)

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Any successful hummingbird garden requires annuals that ensure a long season of continuous blooms. Annuals can be grown in either containers or flowerbeds. The classic hummer’s plants include fuchsias (Fuchsia spp.), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and petunias (Petunia x hybrida). The slightly taller selection includes nicotianas (Nicotiana spp.), red salvias (Salvia splendens) and snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus). Hummingbirds will also visit red-blooming geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) planted on the windowsill.

It never hurts to have as many blooms as possible for hummingbirds. If you feel you don’t have enough, you can always supplement with sugar water in tubular feeders, usually painted red. Natural plant nectar, however, is more nutritious than that artificial food supply.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Hummingbird perched on hummingbird feeder.

These remarkable birds are enjoyable and intriguing to watch. Hearing hummingbirds’ tiny clicks and squeaks is delightful, but watching them is even more gratifying. Their bright feathers scatter light like soap bubbles, creating spectacular colors. The simple pleasure of observing the combination of hummingbirds and blooming plants is certainly reason enough to have a garden particularly designed to attract these extraordinary birds.

Gina Dobrodzicka

Gina Dobrodzicka is a freelance writer and trained horticulturist who lives on Vancouver Island.

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