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 Hummingbirds - Jewels of the Air

 By Tammy Clayton

“Of all animated beings, the hummingbird is the most elegant in form, the most brilliant in color. The precious stones and metals to which our art lends polish are not compared to this gem of Nature, whose masterpiece the little bird represents. She has loaded it with all the gifts of which she has given other birds only a share... The emerald, the ruby, the topaz all glitter in its plumage, which is never sullied by the dust of the ground.”

- Comte de Buffon (18th century French naturalist)

Hummingbirds are the neatest addition to a garden. Many people try to attract them with red-colored sugar water. Inevitably though trying this method to attract them will allow one highly territorial male to declare that it is HIS FEEDER, unless as a friend of mine did, you provide a whole bunch of spaced out feeders.

Myself, not ever having observed them in this common fashion just accidentally discovered them in my garden. There are all sorts of lists available that attract them. I never really paid any attention to any of this hummingbird attracting. I just planted things solely for the color or time of year they bloom or because I liked the look of the plant.

One hot afternoon following a thunderstorm, while sitting on the porch enjoying the now cooler air, I spied the first hummingbird in my garden. He was enjoying a veritable feast of the Gardenview Scarlet Beebalm right in front of my chair. I had left the front door wide open as no bugs were yet flying to let the fresh breeze waft into the house. Suddenly he was hovering on the porch in front of the door. As I watched, he darted right into the front hall. Just as I was poised to rise and go shoo him out, he hummed right back across the porch and dove into the red hanging geraniums.

A few days later, I found his wife in the same clump of Beebalm. He flew in and attacked her right inside the plant. Beating her with his wings and a fair amount of squeaking and commotion came from inside the highly disturbed plant. After several minutes of the wildly waving bloom war, she surrendered and left the plant. He pursued her right around the corner of the porch, across the entire back yard and out into the woods.

Pretty selfish of him, I thought, what an arrogant old thing. Then he swooped back into view and became a tiny bump as he took up surveillance of his flowers on a high branch of the big Maple on the driveway. Back she came again and went into the Beebalm.

So I settled back in my chair to watch the domestic dispute from a most excellent ringside position. Sure enough, what we had here was a quarrel equal to a married couple over which wallpaper should be hung in the powder room. For no sooner had she settled into drinking the spicy nectar than he came charging right back and beat her up again. That was the last time I found her anywhere near the plant in question, evidently two beatings were enough to change her tune of defiance. He wasn’t really all that bad though for a bird guy I suppose, as he did let her have all the Phlox and Delphinium she wanted.

Now years later I have split off several other clumps and planted them along the outside of the fence, she is allowed to drink from those Beebalms. She never ventures near HIS CLUMP. The second summer after they came to dwell here, I was honored with the presence of their offspring. In awe I watched her teach the tiny gold baby about the size of bumblebee to drink the nectar from the Phlox. Pushing its head into the bloom with that needle sharp beak of hers until the babe got the idea of how to feed itself. Standing there witnessing her repeatedly jabbing the tiny head with that sharp needle beak, I had to rub my own head imagining how that must feel. Is it any wonder that the little thing quickly caught on and was drinking without assistance?

The same pair returns every summer to dwell in the flowers and raise their young. I am treated with watching them perched on the patio trellis in early the evening shadows, drawn there for the Delphinium that waves beside it.

It is common knowledge that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is attracted to the color red. Truth be known, they enjoy any scented flower from my observations of their behavior. Plants that they feed on here include Sweet Alyssum, all colors of Tall Phlox and Beebalm (monarda), perennial and annual Salvias, scented Roses, geraniums no matter what color they are and Delphiniums. I am sure that a lengthier list of plants one can add to the garden to keep the hummingbirds well fed and returning year after year.

Through the gift of a book about Hummingbirds, I discovered that though there 150 different types of these tiny jewels only one, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, flies as far north as the eastern United States. The smallest Hummingbird is only two inches long, and the largest measures eight and a half inches in length. No matter their size, as a species they wears feathers the color of every brilliant jewel tone known to man.

The reason that their feathers are so brilliant is because they are not colored with pigment as any other bird’s plumage. For some reason this particular breed’s feathers are black and filled with a substance known as “melanin”. The feathers are only colored as the white light reflects off them. This is the reason for the colors to change when the sunlight shines from a different direction.

If a Hummingbird feather is crushed, it turns black and is never irridescent again. Even after death their feathers retain their ability to flash color in the sunlight forever unless mangled or smashed. Other breeds of bird feathers lose their color slowly after death as the pigments face over time. Many stuffed examples of birds in museums must have their feathers painted after a while to show visitors what they look like. Hummingbirds require no such treatment so long as the feathers are not damaged. The brilliancy of their feathers lasts forever, much like the precious gems whose colors they contain, making them a very special bird indeed.

About the Author
Raised by a highly respected & successful landscape contractor in the metro Detroit area, Clayton wanted a career in anything but landscaping! Now an award-winning landscape designer, Clayton runs Flowerville Farms, a mail-order nursery in Michigan. Read more of her articles at

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