Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
September, 2010
Regional Report

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Blink... and you might miss the darting, gray flutter of a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding at a Monarda blossom.

Yes, Those ARE Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Wings aflutter, these gray marvels zoom in, lap nectar, hover, then back out before you're sure what you've seen. Was it a huge beetle? An unusual butterfly? Ah ha... a hummingbird! A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (RTHU), to be exact, if you're east of the Mississippi.

One RTHU honored me with a surprise visit in August, darting in and out of lavender-lipped, white flowers on a Kashmir Balsam Impatiens (Impatiens balfourii) in my backyard. Watching a hummingbird always takes my breath away. This zoomer sparked my curiosity. Where is the nest? How did it spot those jewelweed-like flowers? How does it fly so agilely? Where does it go when winter freeze threatens?

Operation RubyThroat
As luck would have it, Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware held an educational workshop about the Ruby-throated Hummingbird in late August. RTHU expert Bill Hilton, executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History near York, S.C., spun stories, showed sex and age ID by color and other features, described living and migration patterns, and much more. Hilton invited us all to become "citizen scientists," to join him in studying and banding the RTHU (Archilochus colubris) to track their migration and other behavior patterns.

Are you interested? Banding and researching RTHUs would involve following the hummingbirds north, starting in the warm climes of Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua and Guatemala this January to March 2011. Hilton is looking for volunteer field assistants to help observe, capture, band, and release hummingbirds through his nonprofit Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project. The cost is reasonable for a 9-day expedition in the neotropics. For details, see

There are different Operation RubyThroat opportunities in the Central and North American countries where RTHUs travel. That is the United States, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Information is at

Hilton's Hummingbird Tidbits
The adult male RTHU has its ruby throat visible only from a frontal view to attract a mate. It's not really red. The color you see comes from light refracted through the melanin pigment in the feathers.

A RTHU can weigh about as much as two to four paperclips (one paperclip equals one gram). Males tend to be smaller than females at 2.5 to 3.5 grams; 3 to 5 grams when storing fat to migrate. Females weigh 3.0 to 4.0 grams; 4 to 5 grams when carrying eggs.

The female RTHU builds a nest of spider webs and lichens that weighs less than a nickel.

The RTHU is attracted to orange, red, yellow, or bluish hanging, tubular flowers. Once in the garden, RTHUs seek the same flowers attractive to butterflies.

Hilton champions the trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans, as the "single most important hummingbird plant in the United States." We, like hummingbirds, enjoy the orange trumpet flowers of this native vine. Just be aware that trumpet vine grows fast and furious enough to cause damage and can be weedy or invasive.

The other top nine U.S. natives for RTHUs are bee balm, native honeysuckle, cardinal flower, spotted jewel weed, native columbine, Canada lily, Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) and red buckeye.

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