Seeing wildlife in the city always gives me a special thrill. It’s why I do the work I do! Seeing a monarch butterfly land on a milkweed even before we plant it, or a finch perched on an echinacea seedhead chowing down on seeds, lets me know we’re really doing something special.
Every year I see something new that gives me an extra boost. This year, the special something was the ruby-throated hummingbird. I saw them around my apartment and in the forest preserve, and it felt like suddenly all my Red Stem clients started mentioning them too.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species of hummingbird that nests in eastern North America and the only species regularly seen in Illinois. These feisty little birds migrate from Central America every spring, coming north with the earliest flowers, sipping from Virginia bluebells and columbine. As these plants begin blooming here, the hummingbirds follow. Males, with the eponymous ruby throat, typically arrive first and establish territories in places with abundant flowers. They court females with their distinctive U-shaped mating dance.
After mating, female ruby-throated hummingbirds build well-camouflaged nests from bark shreds, grass, seed fluff, and leaf bud scales, all bound together with spider silk, and camouflaged with lichen. Typically, they have two chicks, which they feed one to three times an hour for about twenty days. In a good year, sometimes they are able to begin a second nest while feeding their first brood.
Male ruby-throated hummingbirds often migrate south in August, while females usually remain until September or October, when they follow the last of the fall blooms south.
I don’t know if there were larger numbers of hummingbirds than usual in our area this year, but we do know they rely on flowers to fuel their extraordinarily high metabolism and, knowing that they are here, we can support them by planting their favorite species. Typically, hummingbirds are attracted to tubular flowers, and while they feed on flowers of every color, they have a special relationship with red flowers. Because of differences in their eye structures, birds are better at seeing red than insects. Because of this, many red flowers are specially adapted to attract, and be pollinated by, hummingbirds. They have tubular flowers adapted to the birds’ long tongues, and large quantities of nectar that is higher in sucrose than bee-pollinated flowers. Here are some of the most important hummingbird-specialized flowers in our area:
Trumpetvine (Campsis radicans) is an enormous and aggressive vine with abundant red-orange flowers that bloom from early summer into fall. They are common in Chicago and grow cultivated and, because they seed prolifically, wild. I believe that the hummingbirds in my very urban neighborhood likely get most of their nectar from the trumpetvines that grow in the alleys. While it is inadvisable to plant near your house, these plants are reasonably well behaved if planted against a light pole in your sunny parkway, or on a fence that doesn’t run next to your house or garage.
Red Vine Honeysuckle (Lonicera dioca) is much better behaved than trumpetvine, preferring sun to part shade. It blooms in late spring, and has an attractive red berry in the fall.
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a spring-blooming flower that grows in full sun and full shade. I plant this in practically every garden I design.
Royal catchfly (Selene regia) is an adaptable summer bloomer that grows in mesic soil in sun to part shade.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a tall, dramatic flower that thrives in moist or wet soil in sun to part shade. This short-lived plant will reseed itself if your garden is wet enough, but can be hard to maintain in a drier site.
Written by Liz Olney