Visitors to my house are sometimes greeted by a ruby-throated hummingbird while we sit on the back deck. In this densely populated suburb of Boston, every year we can count on a hummingbird making a nest in our yard. I suspect it is the same female or her offspring who return from a wintering site somewhere south of the border, as hummingbirds are known to return to their past homes if they are pleased by them. I do everything I can to encourage it by growing their favored plant foods.
Popular wisdom mistakenly says that hummingbirds only see the color red. Their eyes can see a broader range of colors than people, probably even into the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum. They are cable of seeing small items at great distances. They are likely hatched with innate color preferences for their nectar sources but learn to associate other colors with food. Bright red is at the top of their list as it is often the sign of ripeness and sweetness of nectar but they do visit flowers of other colors. Red also contrasts strongly with green foliage, making it visible at a distance.
To attract hummingbirds, I strongly recommend the native honeysuckle, lonicera sempevirens. It is a three season hummingbird magnet. I like the variety Alabama Crimson but there are many named cultivars that are good garden plants. It is not fragrant to the human nose but it has the color, flower shape and nectar that hummingbirds love and is a beautiful easy vine. It likes partial to full sun and is not fussy about water or soil. It prefers a fence or trellis to climb on, although it will sprawl along the ground. Mine grow on a stair railing and along a chain link fence. Both, one in full sun and the other in partial sun, start blooming in early May and continue flowering through late November.
You might also try two other native vines, the trumpet vine (campsis radicans) and the cross vine (bignonia capreolata), but both need a strong and tall fence or trellis. Red bee balm (monarda), liatris, both of the native lobelias (l. Cardinalis and l. Siphilitca), and salvias of all sorts with the exception of the execrable annual red garden salvia, are also hummingbird favorites. The gorgeous salvias greggi and coccinea, native to the southwest and not hardy around here, bring hummingbirds in by the busload. Each of these plants has the long tubular flowers which are accessible to the long tongue of the hummingbird. The small native red buckeye tree, aesculus pavia, is another fave. All of the aforementioned are beautiful garden plants and should be grown even if you don’t care about hummingbirds. And my non-native Mimosa tree, albizia julibrissin, is a big attraction to my ruby.
Nectar powers the rapid beating of hummingbird wings but they thrive on the protein of insects, just as sugar gives people a brief burst of energy but protein gives us strength and if consumed in sufficient quantity, a layer of fat. They need this strength to make the annual spring migration from their winter home in southern Mexico and Central America to North America, and the late summer return trip. They cross the Gulf of Mexico in a non-stop flight of five hundred miles that takes about 20 hours. Before the trip they double their weight by bulking up on insects and arrive in the north less than their 3 gram pre-bulking weight. Once a bird arrives at the Gulf coast it moves northwards at a rate of about 20 miles per day until it finds its home, where it was hatched.
Migration seems to be triggered by a combination of length of day and body weight, not cold temperatures. Males start their migrations in both directions before females. Leave your flowering plants up to feed the birds passing briefly through your area even after your local hummers have flown south.
Hummingbirds are very territorial. Once the female nests she will attack other hummingbirds and much larger birds who enter her area. I have seen my girl fight two blue-jays simultaneously and she won. You can actually hear the clash of the wings of dueling hummingbirds when they fight over feeding or nesting territory. If a hummingbird likes your yard, she will come back in future years. And it is not too hard to give them reason to like your yard.