by Elisabeth Traugott
Out of the corner of your eye you catch a glimpse. A sudden flicker of red or green hovering through your garden, darting here and there. No, it wasn't a fairy, weaving its way through the flower beds, pausing to bathe in the sprinkler. Nor was it a dragonfly or a butterfly inspecting the blooms.
At a little over 3 inches long from top to tail, with iridescent plumage and a distinctive hum to its wings, it was more likely a hummingbird coming to explore in its never-ending search for nectar.
Hummingbirds have a very quick metabolism. They can fly at speeds of up to 60 mph and their hearts beat up to 1,260 times a minute during the day. To maintain this level of activity, they must feed constantly--about every 10 minutes, experts believe.
Spring is the hummingbird's mating season, a time when males perform a dramatic and noisy ritual, diving 60 feet, then swooping back up to attract a partner.
Hummingbirds are territorial and will claim a nectar source for their own, perching in high branches to keep watch and buzzing angrily around other hummers that encroach upon their feeding ground.
There are three species found locally, according to Pierre Vendroux, a gardener at Coyote Point, a museum and nature preserve in San Mateo.
Anna's hummingbird, identifiable by its green back and a rose-red crown and throat in males, lives in the area year-round and is the most common.
From February to July, another variety, Allen's hummingbird, arrives in the area to breed. The males have a green crown and back and an orange-red throat. The females have a greenish back and light-colored belly and are hard to distinguish from the females of the third local species, Rufous hummingbirds.
Rufous hummingbirds come to breed from April to July and can be identified by their "rufous," or rust-colored, back and rump, more prominent in the males, who are also characterized by their orange-red throat.
So how can you get close enough to the birds to tell them apart?
A quick survey of local retail garden stores will demonstrate how popular backyard feeders have become. Because hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, many feeders are made in part or entirely of red plastic.
But using red food coloring is not a good idea because it isn't good for the birds, said Vendroux, who tends to Coyote Point's hummingbird garden.
A mixture of four parts water to one part sugar--never honey because it carries diseases harmful to the birds--is plenty sweet, Vendroux said. The solution must be changed every three or four days to prevent fungus from growing in the feeder.
To clean the feeder, Vendroux recommends using sand and water--never detergents, which can poison the tiny birds.
Experts have long debated whether backyard feeders disrupt hummingbirds' migratory behavior, enticing them to stay long past their normal departure date for warmer climes.
While the debate rages on, other ways to lure the tiny birds into your yard are well established. Hummingbirds are attracted to particular species of plants and shrubs, not by their scent, but by their color and shape.
The birds' elongated beaks make trumpet or bell-shaped flowers appealing, especially if they contain rich nectar that bees and butterflies have trouble reaching.
And it is possible to plant a variety of species that will bloom year-round, making your garden attractive to hummingbirds almost all the time.
In the spring, many hummingbirds will be returning to the area. They will be attracted to such flowers as columbine (Aquilegia formosa), coral bells (Heuchera maxima), sage (Salvia spp.), and penstemon or beardtongue (Penstemon heterophyllus is a California native).
Spring blooming vines and shrubs that appeal to hummers are evergreen clematis (Clematis armandii) and laurustinus (Viburnum tinus "spring bouquet"). Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) and California lilac (Ceanothus spp.) also make excellent hummingbird-friendly groundcover.
In the summer, hummers are most often attracted to the California fuschia (Epilobium canum), which can act as a natural feeder when hung in the shade below a kitchen window. They also enjoy hummingbird mint (Agastache cana), sweet william (Dianthus spp.), verbena (Verbena spp.) and sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus spp.).
A common trumpet creeper (Campsis radiscans) or coral honeysuckle (Lonicera heckrottii) will also do the trick in summer, as will a glossy abelia (Abelia grandiflora) or woolly grevillea (Grevillea lanigera).
Finding fall and winter-blooming hummingbird attractors is more difficult, but there are options. These include the strawberry tree (Arbutus undedo), heath (Erica spp.) and escallonia (Escallonia "Fradesii").
Many summer-blooming flowers maintain their array through the fall. They include penstemon, sage and lantana.
Other tips from the gardeners at Coyote Point include planting species of varying height so hummers have different levels of observation throughout the garden. And if you want to have more than one feeder, make sure they are not within sight of each other. Vendroux says this will ensure that the feeders fall within two distinct territories and will bring more birds to your yard.
If possible, don't use pesticides in your garden. They can be fatal to the birds. Hummingbirds, after all, don't only drink nectar. They provide natural pest control by swallowing insects in your garden.
The Coyote Point gardeners, as well as other home and garden experts, will be on hand this weekend at the South Bay Spring Garden Show in the Santa Clara Convention Center. The theme of the show is "Birds are Beautiful," and the convention center will be aflutter with tips for bringing birds to your yard. For information, call 1-800-765-3976.
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