Create a Feeder-Free Hummingbird Paradise in Eight Steps

Hopped up on sugar, wings moving too fast to see, hummingbirds are winging their way to your part of the United States, if they're not there already. In the East, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird prevails, but out West, more than a dozen species occupy a range of habitats.

Feeders stocked with sugar water usually attract hummingbirds, but they require frequent cleaning and filling to keep the birds coming. If neglected, feeders can pose a health threat to the birds.

Below you will find ways to make your property attractive to hummingbirds by supplying natural elements they require. At the end, we also provide a list of great hummingbird plants and some important hummingbird feeder tips. Ready to create your hummingbird paradise? Read on!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by Brian Guest/Shutterstock

Ruby-throated Hummingbird with Bee Balm, a great hummingbird plant. Photo by Brian Guest/Shutterstock

Eight Steps to Set Up Your Hummingbird “Reserve”:

1. Plant native flowering plants. Hummingbirds feed on a variety of nectar-producing flowering plants, from mighty Tulip trees to clumps of coral bells. But they don't feed at all flowering plants, so be sure to select plants known to lure hummingbirds to home gardens.

Native plants will not only make your property look more natural — they will replace some of the native vegetation lost in so many places to development and rampant invasive exotic plants.

Never dig up native plants from wild places; instead, order or buy them from the many nurseries, including online companies such as Prairie Moon and Toadshade Wildflower Farm, that now sell them. In late summer and fall, you can also collect some seeds for next year's planting. (Look for assurances that seeds and plants are free of neonicotinoids. These pesticides, known to be toxic to bees, are also lethal to birds.)

2. If you end up choosing plants that are not native species, select with care. Do not assume that nurseries will only sell you non-invasive plants. For example, although attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies, the Tall or Purple-top Vervain (Verbena bonariensis), a South America native, is invasive in the Southeast and California, as are a few other vervains.

3. Keep your yard free of cats. Hummingbirds are fast, but so are cats. Site any feeders, water features, or flowering plants away from, or well above, where sit-and-wait predators might pounce. Practice and advocate for treating cats like dogs — that is, providing safe and enriching places for pet felines to live indoors full time or supervised and contained outdoors. Other sit-and-wait predators that have on occasion been seen catching hummingbirds at feeders and water features include Bullfrogs and the Chinese Mantis (an exotic Praying Mantis species).

Calliope Hummingbird. Photo by Tim Zurowski/Shutterstock

A Calliope Hummingbird feeds from a Red-flowering Currant. Photo by Tim Zurowski/Shutterstock

4. Provide snags for clear sight lines. Hummingbirds are always on the alert — for food resources, for predators, and for the presence of other hummingbirds. Dead branches provide great lookouts. You can place a large dead branch or leave some dead branches in living trees to provide these lookout points. You may be surprised how quickly hummingbirds, flycatchers, and other birds adopt these “stick” perches.

5. Spread out the resources. Because they are combative, hummingbirds can use some space when possible. If you plant flower patches in several parts of your yard, or separate your feeder locations, this may give less aggressive hummingbirds the space they need.

6. Don't use chemicals that may harm insects, birds, and other wildlife. Hummingbirds eat small insects and feed many of them to their young. Just as you wouldn't want children or pets to ingest yard chemicals, the same should hold true for neighborhood wildlife.

7. Maintain native trees, shrubs, and vines on the landscape. You can try to create the breeding habitat hummingbirds need by researching the natural history of species found in your area. If you can draw these birds to nest, you are truly providing a little reserve in your garden.

Note: In many areas, letting a part of your yard “grow wild” may require that you manage that habitat to ensure that invasive exotic plants don't take over. In the East, for example, watch for and remove rampant vines such as Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Amur Honeysuckle (L. maackii) shrubs. Although hummingbirds may visit these from time to time, these species will overtake a woodlot if not controlled. They can be replaced with native honeysuckles, such as the Trumpet Honeysuckle mentioned above.

Trumpet Vines make wonderful hummingbird plants. Photo by Bildagentur Zoonar/Shutterstock

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird investigates a Trumpet Creeper. Photo by Bildagentur Zoonar/Shutterstock

8. Provide water. A mister or dripper over your birdbath may be just the bathing opportunity hot hummingbirds need this summer. Hummingbirds won't normally visit a regular birdbath. Do some online research to see what works for other hummingbird aficionados.

Some Top Native Hummingbird Plants

Among the widespread hummingbird favorites growing native in the eastern U.S. are two flowering vines: Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans). (Trumpet Creeper is also native in parts of the West. Be careful not to plant this near a home's foundation due to its mighty roots.) Two other widespread and important species are Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which also occurs in riparian areas of the Southwest, and Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), also found in the Pacific Northwest.

Agastaches, also called hummingbird mints, draw in these smallest of birds, plus bees, and also goldfinches, which eat the seeds. Native species include A. foeniculum in northern states from coast to coast, and A. scophulariifolia in the East and Midwest. Generally, agastaches favor sunny, dry locations with fast-draining soils.

In both East and West, columbines are a hummingbird favorite, including Wild or Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadense) in the East and Western Columbine (A. formosa) in the Pacific Northwest.

Photo by Glen Tepke

A Rufous Hummingbird sips from a Red-flowering Currant. Photo by Feng Yu, Shutterstock

With names like Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot, and Oswego Tea, many plants in the genus Monarda are hummingbird-attracting plants. M. fistulosa is one, and also M. didyma. With their dazzling blooms, Monardas send a splash of color rippling across the garden.

Some native lilies are also nice additions, including Canada Lily (Lilium canadense) in the East and Columbia Lily (L. columbianum) in the West.

Native penstemon, or beardtongue, species and native salvias (sage) are also great choices.

The U.S. Southwest is hummingbird heaven. There, a well-planted yard will no doubt be an oasis, especially if graced with such native plants as ocotillo (Fouquieria splendense), Bearded Penstemon (Penstemon barbatus), and Hummingbird Trumpet (Zauschneria californica).

In the West, Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) and Golden Currant (Ribes aureum) are versatile shrubs alluring to hummingbirds. Avoid planting in the East, however; Golden Currant has escaped cultivation outside its normal range and is not recommended for Eastern gardeners.

A Calliope Hummingbird fueling up on Crimson Columbine nectar. Photo by Robert Mutch/Shutterstock

Calliope Hummingbird visiting Western Columbine. Photo by Robert Mutch/Shutterstock

Feeder Tips

If you do decide to put out hummingbird feeders, here are tips for keeping them safe and productive:

1. Clean feeders once a week with a diluted bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) or soak for an hour in a white vinegar mixture that's one part vinegar to four parts water. Rinse thoroughly and let dry before re-filling with sugar water.

2. Change sugar water mixture two to three times per week. The mixture should be one part white sugar dissolved into four parts warm to hot water. (Clear solution is fine; red dyes are neither needed nor recommended.)

3. Place feeders in the shade.

4. If needed, use “water moat” ant guards attached above the feeder line to keep ants from the sugar water.

Share Your Ideas!

Do you have a hummingbird garden? What hummingbirds do you see, and what makes your hummingbirds tick? Please use the comment box below to share!


Howard Youth, ABC's Senior Writer/Editor, gardens for hummingbirds and other wildlife in Maryland. He is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C.

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9 Comments

  1. ascoronavirus

    April 22, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Bees have good?colour?vision. They especially like blue, purple, violet, white and yellow. Create floral bull’s eyes: Plant flowers of a single species in clumps about four feet in diameter instead of in scatterings so bees are more likely to find them.

  2. Clare Nielsen

    April 23, 2020 at 10:14 am

    I have plants for hummingbirds in all seasons, yet I rarely see them. That makes it such a joy when a Ruby-throated Hummingbird shows up and sips from something in my garden. I have columbine, Lyre-leaved Sage, native honeysuckle, Trumpet Creeper, various penstemons, monardas … If I was going to plant just one thing for hummingbirds, I’d go with monardas (bee balms). They are gorgeous and great for bees, too! — Clare in Silver Spring, MD

  3. Jane Alexander

    April 24, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Thank you Howard. I’m still awaiting the arrival of my Ruby Throated regulars here in Nova Scotia. I’ve already got feeders up for the scouts. Your tips for flowers are helpful. And I’m growing lots of Bee balm from seed currently. How do I know the seeds are not infused with Neonics?

  4. RS in the Smokies

    April 27, 2020 at 11:38 pm

    East Tennessee – Zone 6~7 Mostly Ruby Throated. Some Rufus in winter but I’ve never seen one.
    MVP’s (most valuable plants) here for me
    Ruellia – they visit it in the morning and it’s beautiful
    Cypress Vine – cheap seed annual that reseeds – they really LOVE it
    Zinnia – cheap seed annual and they love it
    Rose of Sharon – they really love it
    Agastache – they love ‘Ava’ and ‘Desert Sunrise’ the most
    Mimosa trees – they love them. Butterfly weeds and Joe Pye weeds…
    Many more but these are most popular for me.
    One weird thing – either bugs or camouflage- they seem to hang out around poke weed here.

  5. Elise Wolf

    April 29, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    Wonderful article. Just one note, some of the new bleach varieties are made with additional chemicals (no splash for example), these all leave a film (actually, so does regular bleach). I suggest bleaching first, then washing feeders with dishsoap after to remove this film. Then rinse rinse rinse.

  6. Sandra A. Stanford

    April 29, 2020 at 4:26 pm

    I love Hummingbirds and usually have Anna’s stop by my water fountain daily. I try to arrange my garden for all types of birds.

    • FAWN PALMER

      May 10, 2020 at 12:06 pm

      I would add to this excellent article a bit about planting nectar-rich, fall blooming plants. Such as salvias, coral honeysuckle, Tithonia–Mexican Sunflower, Cypress Vine, and others.

  7. Mike

    May 3, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    I have found Porter Weed, bother red and blue a great attraction for my visitors.
    Preparing for our Fall visit.
    Mike
    Hobe Sound
    Fla.

  8. Emma Wilde

    May 15, 2020 at 2:51 am

    Can anyone recommend a safe durable hummingbird feeder? I obviously plan to clean it regularly, as recommended, but am shopping around for one… and am concerned about paints used and also plastics. If anyone can kindly recommend a safe make, that is easy to clean, I would be very grateful.