Hummingbird-ing in Oak Park

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

The Fall season of hummingbird migration is here, so if you haven't seen one in your backyard yet, there is still time to do so through early October. 

That's the word from local birder, Eric Gyllenhaal, a retired museum consultant and naturalist who is always looking up, out and around, in an urban park or neighborhood near you.

It's across Austin Boulevard, due west up Jackson Boulevard, past the Chicago Park District golf course, and behind the Rectory in Columbus Park's bee, butterfly and bird sanctuary where he can often be found.  This is one of three urban parks where he officially monitors the ebb and flow of local and migrating birds for the Bird Conservation Network, a group that taps the efforts of citizen scientists to record information about the distribution and abundance of birds in the Chicago region. 

"If you live in Oak Park, we have a lot of trees on our streets, and people have a lot of interesting plants in their front and back yards, and there are a lot of plants that grow wild in the alleys, and those plants are bringing lots and lots of birds to Oak Park just on their own.  In any given year we will count 100 different birds just around our house and our neighborhood.  Most of these birds do not come because of the feeders.  They come because of the plants.  They eat the seeds, and the fruits of the plants, or more importantly, they eat the bugs that eat the plants,"  Eric said in a recent chin wag. 

He continued saying that the natural world of birds is all around us, if we just pay attention to our surroundings, especially in the alleys, gardens and trees of Oak Park.   That is what he does.  So far this fall he's spied five individual hummingbirds at his trumpet creeper and retooled red hummingbird feeder, and each year he sees about 100 different kinds of birds around his house.

For a bird's eye  view of hummingbirds in action at a feeder, click here.

"If you have a feeder out, have trumpet creeper, or other flowering or fruit bearing plants that are still active, that is your best chance to sight a hummingbird," he says.

So far, in my small urban backyard I have seen only one, and fleetingly, because they are furiously fast, so getting one to pose for a picture is tough, because before you know it, they are gone in a blur, at least for me.


"It's not that difficult this time of year to see one, because the best time to attract hummingbirds is late August through early October," Eric says.  "They are migrating south, so there are a lot more of them, and if you have a red feeder in your yard, or blooms that are red, hummingbirds might fly in to fatten up for the next leg of the trip."

Spring is a time when I have never seen one.  

Eric says it is probably because  "they are in a bigger hurry in Spring, but in Fall, and right now, they are taking their time to eat bugs, nectar, or drink from a hummingbird feeder."

So, I recently went on a wandering walking quest to find/see hummingbirds, and in an Oak Park alley I found a wall of trumpet creeper covering a ten foot fence.  

I waited, and was rewarded.  But I am not sated, yet.

In my landscape I have inserted at least some of the 18 plants that attract 'em, including this easy-to-grow cardinal climber on a trellis, just off the patio and viewable from my kitchen window.

It really seems that hummingbirds like the red flowers, but it is the high octane nectar that draws them.  BTW, the hummingbirds' sense of color is due to the dense concentration of cones in its retina. 

So, Bee Balm (Monarda), Canna, Cardinal Flower, Columbine, Coral Bells, Four O'Clocks, Foxglove, Hosta, Hummingbird Mint (Agastache), Little Cigar, Lupine, Penstemon, Yucca, -- any or all of these will do, and as a bonus, they will attract and feed other birds, too.

In my backyard, I look for cardinals, as well, so Eric says the best way to do that is plant native forbs, shrubs and trees to provide the foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts that many species of wildlife require to survive. 

So, this year, for the cardinals, I will let my roses form hips to attract them in the winter.

"When it gets colder out, Cardinals will become more flock centered, sometimes you will see flocks of 8 or 10 cardinals bobbing around Oak Park looking for things to eat," Eric points out.  "Every year in the cold weather there is a flock of cardinals that live off of eating the rose hips on the east side of Columbus Park, east of the field house, so that is a reliable place to see them." 

For me, the finches are already here, but I want more.

About anything that will make a seed, including grasses, will attract goldfinches, Eric says.  I have been told that they really go for zinnias, another pretty flower I grow from seed.  A single plant can keep a goldfinch busy for an afternoon.

And, I am not deadheading my coneflowers at all.

"When purple cone flowers go to seed, take a close look and you could find a flock of gold finches because they are finding a good source of seed," Eric says.  "They will sit there carefully and eat each seed one by one.  They are so persistent that they will not leave unless you get really close to them, and if they do leave, if you don't do anything bad, they will come back fairly quickly."

Happily, robins hang around for the worms, insects in the leaf litter over winter, and now for my wild growing Poke Weed, with this caveat:  "Poke Weed is poisonous to humans or other mammals, not just the green parts, but even the ripe fruits, so, poke is great once the kids are old enough to know better, and if your dogs don't run loose in the yard," Eric says. 

Providing a water source in a backyard habitat is critical to attracting native birds and fly bys, who love splashing in for a drink or a bath. 

"Robins eat the fruit, need a lot of water to digest it, so if you want to attract more Robins, putting out a water source, year-round, and changing it periodically -- so it can be fresh -- and using a drip or recycling pump will bring in neighborhood birds for a drink and a swim, even for the migratory birds that are just flying over," he says.

And, in Hackberry and Hawthorne trees, look for cardinals and migratory birds like Thrushes.  Blue Jays, another common neighborhood bird, often sit in Oak trees to eat acorns.   

What an absolute tweet (and treat) walkabouts in my neighborhood now will be.

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Reader Comments

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Don Nekrosius from Oak Park  

Posted: September 28th, 2014 11:08 AM

Birds bring our eyes and ears up into the higher realms of nature and deep into the recesses where they haunt. So plant some native shrub like an aronia (red or black) and welcome the feathered critters to their autumn berries. Cooper's hawks are regular visitors around here and nature will indeed be red in tooth and claw (talon?) when they get their latest meal. Suet and fruit, seed and native plant, water and shubby hiding place--welcome, birds!


Posted: September 19th, 2014 12:06 PM

It's rewarding all year to provide habitat for the other animals that need our yards, but in the fall it is especially so. These animals fly so far with so many challenges facing them--windows (please collision proof your windows), cats, pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change (big thing in the news for birds the past couple of weeks). The least we can do is provide them some some food/shelter in our landscapes. Also, we derive a great many ecosystem benefits from these animals.


Posted: September 19th, 2014 12:02 PM

Hummingbirds--so small but give such a big wow factor. Though, I'm planting more and more natives, I will always plant a patch of Mexican Sunflowers, a wonderful annual that flowers during the later summer/early fall and is a favorite pollinator plant. It is always visited by Monarchs as they are migrating and hummingbirds too. Native plants produce the insects that hummers and other migrating birds will eat. Saw some Redstarts going though White Snake Root catching bugs and inchworms.

Bird Man from Oak Park  

Posted: September 19th, 2014 11:55 AM

nice article - i really enjoyed reading it

Eric Gyllenhaal from Oak Park  

Posted: September 18th, 2014 4:24 PM

Speaking of what to plant in your yard for birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology just posted this article about native fruit-bearing shrubs and trees:

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