Loving Hummingbirds to death: Why thousands die every year from deadly commercial nectar
Updated: Nov 21
By Staci-lee Sherwood
There’s something magical about Hummingbirds. They are one of nature’s tiny engineering miracles. These amazing birds can fly vertical as well as horizontal. I’ve been lucky to have one hummingbird come to winter in my pollinator garden every year for the past six years. Every time they bring me a new understanding of the species while being able to identify different birds by their personality. Some were aggressive in guarding their territory chasing off intruders looking for a quick snack on the run. Others were willing to hang around making for an easy day for photography. One was more what I called a nervous Nelly always looking around never relaxing. They live in almost constant motion which puts a big strain on their hearts. Their life span is about three years for a male and five years for a female. This doesn’t give them a long breeding cycle so it’s imperative that every bird gets as much native organic nectar as possible.
One of the biggest threats to their survival comes from what most would think an unlikely problem the feeders people put out for them. It’s estimated that several thousand hummingbirds die every year from health problems caused by dirty feeders, spoiled sugar water and toxic commercial nectar. Most people are unaware of the dangers lurking in their backyard. A few quick steps can insure a healthy more natural way to help hummingbirds survive while giving you a wonderful opportunity to watch these aerial magicians up close without hurting them.
A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a Zebra Longwing Butterfly share their love for the pink Penta flowers
Red dye is not needed nor is commercial nectar. Having a garden filled with red, pink and orange flowers is all you need to attract hummingbirds that are local. If you don’t have many native flowers the next best thing is a simple bright red feeder. Hummingbirds in your area will spy the red patch as they fly above looking for food and gladly come down to investigate. Commercial nectar contains several ingredients that pose a danger. The most talked about are FD & C Red #5, #40 and Citrus #2.
Red dyes #40 and #5 are by-products of crude oil or coal so that tells you how toxic it is. To extend shelf life these products contain citric acid or sodium benzoate as a preservative. None of these chemicals are found in flowers and can’t be digested by hummingbirds. The red dye has been known to cause cancer in mice and no doubt a similar threat to birds. Red dye #40 is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and Norway, but is still in use in the U.S.
Even the ‘natural’ dyes have questionable ingredients. The most common source for red dye not found in crude oil is Carmine (E120). It’smade by grinding up the scale cochineal insect and takes 80,000 to 100,000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal dye. These also contain preservatives making it a less than healthy alternative to flowers. The safest, easiest and cheapest nectar is the simple sugar and water mixture you make yourself in five minutes. This is the closet manmade product that resembles nature’s food.
A bright red feeder is all you need to attract hummingbirds. You can also tie a bright red ribbon around the stand or pole it’s on.
To make the proper mixture experts recommend follow the recipe and instructions below. Keep in mind that plain white sugar, table sugar, granulated sugar and regular cane sugar are all common names used for everyday sugar. All of these have had the natural molasses removed. Most tap water is adequate to use but filtered water is preferred when making your homemade nectar. Please do NOT use honey, organic sugar or artificial sweeteners. Hummingbirds can not break down certain sugars and this can become very dangerous for them. All you need aside from sugar and water is a stainless steel pot to boil the water in and a glass container to store the mixture. One week’s worth is best to make at a time and keep refrigerated.
A word about hummingbird feeders. The simplest to clean and use is best. There are plenty of designs geared toward what people want but a feeder for wildlife should be lightweight, non breakable and easy to keep clean. Glass feeders can break leaving a deadly trail of broken glass. Fancy designs don’t guarantee wildlife will be attracted.
Keeping the feeder clean and free of debris, chemical residue and mold is the most important thing one can do. To clean your feeder just toss the old mixture and rinse for a couple of minutes in hot water. No need to use soap as it leaves a residue which can make the birds sick. Wipe thoroughly dry and you’re ready to add fresh mixture. It’s best to clean and replace mixture every two days unless outside temperatures reach into the high 70s or the feeder sits in the sun all day then it’s recommended to clean every day. I researched many brands and designs before buying the Aspects Hummzinger. They come highly recommended by customers and are just two smooth parts. Their best feature is the smooth holes that the hummingbirds use to drink the sugar water. Most feeders have grooved holes which add no benefit but can trap moisture causing mold and bacteria. This can make the birds sick and even kill them.
Photo credit Duncraft.com
Simple smooth and easy to keep clean
Best feature no grooves where mold and bacteria can grow
Now you’re all set to sit back and watch the aerial acrobatics of hummingbirds knowing that you are providing a safe source of food that won’t harm them.
A female Ruby-throated rests for a moment after grooming
A male Ruby-throated sits on my feeder enjoying homemade non toxic nectar
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More information about Hummingbirds
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