While the color purple is considered regal, hummingbirds bow to another hue–red blossoms, especially those with a tubular shape, says garden coordinator Liz Nichol, referring to bell-shaped blooms of penstemons that are filled with nectar. Such flowers make ideal dinner plates for the tiny, long-billed hummers that return every summer to the Hummingbird Garden at Starsmore Discovery Center, 2120 S. Cheyenne Cañon Road in Colorado Springs.
The garden and visitor center are located at the base of North Cheyenne Cañon Park, a 1,600-acre city park with striking rock formations and abundant plants and wildlife. One of the main attractions is the colorful garden that graces the entrance to the center, a historic stone structure completed in 1922 as a private residence for the Starsmore family. In 1989, the building was transported from its city locale to the current site, where it houses displays that offer visitors a chance to learn more about the park and the gleaming birds that flit across the landscape like winged gems.
Set off by a gurgling creek and surrounded by aspens, scrub oaks, willows and mugho pines, the garden has flourished for many years. But in 1995 an effort was begun to add perennials particularly favored by hummingbirds, which long have made the canoñ a stop on their migratory route.
Care and upkeep of the Hummingbird Garden is carried out by the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon (FOCC), an organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the park. The group, which raises money through memberships and various fund-raisers, provides extensive support for the park and visitor center programs.
FOCC has approximately 100 members, a number of whom do volunteer work in the garden. Liz, a member of the organization’s board, has worked on the project since its inception. She became involved through her interest in gardening as well as a desire to learn more about the connection between hummingbirds and the flowers to which they flock.
“The big draw,” she notes, “is bee balm. When these are blooming, it’s a great place to sit and watch (the birds).” On this misty spring morning, the bee balm, a member of the mint family, can only be distinguished by a bed of scented green leaves. But when the flowers bloom later in summer, the hummers will seek out the raggedy, “mop-head” blossoms, which are made up of numerous individual tubular flowers that contain the much-desired nectar.
Bee balm comes in shades that range from soft pink to a bold purple. To add variety to the garden, several colors are represented, as are various tints of many other flowers. But while the hungry hummers will gather nectar from any available flower, no matter its color, gardeners and bird watchers long have noted that hummingbirds seem to have a preference for red, both on flowers and commercial feeders.
One theory is that red tubular flowers may contain the most nectar, something hummingbirds learn over time and through their feeding experiences. And the avian world’s smallest occupants need all the nectar they can get. Their unusually high metabolism requires them to eat one-half their weight in food every day.
In addition to nectar, the birds ingest insects such as gnats to satisfy their need for protein and fat. This is why hummers also will feed on petunias and other flat flowers. But when it comes to nectar, tubular blossoms offer the biggest bounty.
Liz has planted penstemons throughout the garden. In part, she admits, she has a special fondness for the plant. “In learning about penstemons that attract hummingbirds, I just have become a penstemaniac,” she jokes. But the birds apparently share her attachment to the flower, particularly when it comes to firecracker penstemon, beautiful with its scarlet spikes jutting out like rows of little peppers.
The arrangement, Liz points out, is tailor-made for a hummer, which “will stick its beak in each one of these flowers and you’ll see him work his way down the whole stem, then start on another one.” In return for getting much-needed nutrients, hummingbirds reciprocate by helping to pollinate the garden as they dart from flower to flower.
Among the many flowers found in the Hummingbird Garden, the hummers’ favorites include Rocky Mountain penstemon, the peach-colored Sunset hyssop; Indian paintbrush, a vibrant, reddish-orange bloomer that brightens the foothills throughout Colorado; rose-colored salvia, which is especially beneficial in the fall, when hummers start migrating to warmer climes; and Siberian catmint, which produces a large, lavender flower.
Because of Colorado’s recent drought, one section of the garden focuses on plants that need less water, such as a red-flowering yucca, which can take a few years to become established enough to bloom.
To help supply sufficient nectar, particularly early in the season before the garden is in full bloom, Starsmore Discovery Center puts out hummingbird feeders on the building’s spacious, shady back porch, where benches invite visitors to watch the jewel-bright creatures.
There are over 300 species of hummers, four of which are found in the park. The Broad-tailed hummingbird shows up first, about mid-April. The Black-chinned hummingbird – the rarest of the four in this area – and the Calliope follow, from the end of May to mid-June. Last to arrive is the Rufous, which turns up in early July.
Today, as gray clouds scud across the sky and the smell of rain mixes with the sweet scent that wafts down from pine-dotted hills, a few Broad-tailed hummers are the only birds in sight, occasionally darting in to sample the sugar-water mix in a centrally placed pole feeder.
As is typical with birds, the males have the most distinctive colors. The body is green and white with tawny wings and a characteristic rose gorget or throat patch, which flashes with an iridescent sparkle when it catches the sun. The female is more muted, mainly green and white without the showy gorget.
Along with coloration, there’s another way to distinguish between the two. Although all hummingbirds can “talk,” one of the birds flies in with a characteristic high trill, a sound produced by its wings, D.J. Ebert, an interpretative guide at Starsmore, points out, “That’s the way to tell the males from the females – the females don’t make any noise.”
As if to bear her out, shortly after the male zips off toward a leafy copse, another, less-colorful hummer takes his place at the feeder, silent as a spy as she perches and dips her bill into the sugar-water mix.
Of all the birds, hummers are among the most fascinating. Characteristics include their unusual method of feeding. Known for their long bills, hummers have even longer tongues, up to two times the length of the bill. “So that’s why they don’t have to stick the whole bill down into the feeder or the flower,” D.J. explains. “They don’t suck – it’s not a straw. The tongue is forked at the end. And it’s very fuzzy, so that it just absorbs.”
While hummers may perch upon commercial feeders, they routinely hover when taking nourishment from flowers. The birds, which have hollow bones, are unusually muscular for their tiny size. Most hummers measure between two and a half and five inches long, and weigh less than half an ounce. This combination of lightness and muscle power allows them to hover long enough to feed, their wings beating in a figure eight pattern, up to 70 beats per second.
The hummers’ capabilities become even more impressive when you walk inside the visitor center and contemplate the display of two incredibly tiny nests. Only a tad larger than a silver dollar, the nests can be built anywhere from a little ways above the ground to the tops of the evergreens that dot the hillside.
“When the nest is first made, it’s very small and tightly woven in a traditional up and down shape,” D.J. points out, noting that the nest is crafted from a mix of lichen, plant seed, animal hair and silky spider webbing.
“She lays two eggs, a couple of days apart, which are about the size of a white navy bean.” After the eggs hatch, to accommodate the growing nestlings, mama bird – who raises her brood alone – spreads out their conveniently expandable home, as can be seen from the second, flatter nest. “She’s a wonderful architect,” D.J. says, adding that baby birds can’t fly or “perch at birth, they have to strengthen their legs.” But they soon flex their muscles in the nest for a long flight.
The hummer’s early independence comes in handy when the birds migrate, particularly the Rufous. After wintering in Mexico, the Rufous goes up the California Coast, all the way to Oregon, Washington or Alaska. The Rufous courts, breeds and raises its young before flying back down through the Rocky Mountain corridor in late summer. “The first to migrate are the males, then the females. And the very last are the fledglings. They have no one to fly with them, they just automatically go, and they follow their food sources.”
Each year, Starsmore holds two special events to mark the return of these unique creatures. The Hummingbird Festival takes place every May. Aug. 9 is National Hummingbird Day, to be celebrated with activities that may include demonstrations of hummingbird banding.
- The general recommendation is to use four parts water to one part sugar in hummingbird feeders. In the spring and fall, when the birds are migrating, Starsmore Discovery Center usually uses a three to one mixture to provide a richer food source
- Do not use red food coloring, packaged powdered sugar mixtures or honey, which can coat the birds’ bills
- Clean the feeders with hot water and refill with a fresh sugar and water mix every two to three days to cut down on insects, fermentation and the possibility of disease.
Bee balm (Monarda), California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica), Cardinal flower (Lobelia), Catmint (Nepeta), Columbine (Aquilegia), Delphinium (Delphinium), Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii), Pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolious), Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), Garden phlox (Phlox), Honeysuckle (Lonicera), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra), Maltese cross (Lychnis), Salvia (Salvia), Spider flower (Cleome), Sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris).
Helpful Web sites
- Starsmore Discovery Center, 2120 S. Cheyenne Cañon Road, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80906, is free and open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer months; (719) 578-6146
- The Friends of Cheyenne Canyon; www.tfocc.org
- Hummingbird Information and Behavior www.hummingbirds.net
- “Hummingbirds, A Beginner’s Guide,” by Laurel Aziz, Firefly Books, 2002
- “Hummingbirds of North America, the Photographic Guide,” by Steve N. G. Howell, Natural World, 2002
- “Ortho’s All About Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies,” Editor: Michael McKinley, Meredith Books, 2001
- “The Hummingbird Book, the Complete Guide to Attracting, Identifying, and Enjoying Hummingbirds,” by Donald and Lillian Stokes, Little, Brown and Co., 1989