Love hummingbirds to death: thousands die every year from commercial nectar

There is something magical about hummingbirds. They are one of nature’s little engineering miracles. These amazing birds can fly both vertically and horizontally. I have been fortunate to have one hummingbird overwintering in my pollinator garden every year for the past six years. Each 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 by chasing intruders in search of a quick snack while running. Others were willing to linger for an easy day for photography. One was more of what I called a nervous Nelly who always looked around and never relaxed. They live in an almost constant movement, which puts a strain on their hearts. Their lifespan is around three years for a male and five years for a female. This does not give them a long breeding cycle, so it is imperative that each bird receives as much native organic nectar as possible.

One of the biggest threats to their survival comes from what most might think of as an unlikely problem the feeders pose for them. It is estimated that several thousand hummingbirds die each 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 ensure a healthy, more natural way to help hummingbirds survive while also giving you a wonderful opportunity to watch these aerial magicians up close without harming them.

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a Zebra Longwing butterfly share their love for the pink Penta flowers.

Red dye is not necessary nor commercial nectar. Having a garden filled with red, pink, and orange flowers is all you need to attract local hummingbirds. If you don’t have a lot of native flowers, the best thing to do is a simple bright red bird feeder. Hummingbirds in your area will spy on the red spot as they fly overhead in search of food and will gladly descend to investigate. Commercial nectar contains several ingredients that present a danger. The best known are FD&C Red # 5, # 40 and Citrus # 2.

Red Dyes # 40 and # 5 are a byproduct of crude oil or coal, which 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 cannot be digested by hummingbirds. The red dye is 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 used in the United States

Even “natural” dyes contain questionable ingredients. The most common source of red dye that is not found in crude oil is carmine (E120). It is made by crushing the scale insect mealybug and takes 80,000 to 100,000 insects to make one kilogram of cochineal dye. These also contain preservatives, making them a less than healthy alternative to flowers. The safest, easiest, and cheapest nectar is the simple mixture of sugar and water that you make yourself in five minutes. It is the man-made product that resembles nature’s food.

Why is commercial nectar available in pet stores if it is so bad for hummingbirds? In short, there are many things legal in the United States that are toxic, dangerous, and unethical. The legal loophole is that no one has ever directly tested the effects of dyes and preservatives on hummingbirds. The important thing to remember here is not to take the risk.

A bright red bird feeder is all you need to attract hummingbirds. You can also tie a bright red ribbon around the stand or pole it sits on.

To make the right mixture, experts recommend following the recipe and instructions below. Keep in mind that regular 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 sufficient to use, but filtered water is best when making your homemade nectar. Thanks NOT use honey, organic sugar, or artificial sweeteners. Hummingbirds cannot break down some sugars and this can become very dangerous for them. Besides the sugar and water, all you need is a stainless steel saucepan to boil the water and a glass container to store the mixture. It is best to prepare a week at a time and keep it in the refrigerator.

A word about hummingbird feeders. The simpler to clean and use, the better. There are many designs to suit what people want, but a wildlife feeder should be lightweight, shatterproof, and easy to clean. Glass feeders can shatter leaving a deadly trail of broken glass. Sophisticated designs are no guarantee that wildlife will be attracted to.

Keeping the feeder clean and free from debris, chemical residue, and mold is the most important thing one can do. To clean your feeder, simply throw away the old mixture and rinse for a few minutes with hot water. No need to use soap as it leaves a residue that can make birds sick. Wipe off thoroughly and you are ready to add a fresh mixture. It is best to clean and replace the mixture every of them days, unless the outside temperatures reach 70 degrees or the feeder is in the sun all day, it is recommended to clean it every day. I researched many makes and models before purchasing the Hummzinger Aspects. They come highly recommended by customers and are just two smooth parts. Their best feature is the smooth holes that hummingbirds use to drink the sugar water. Most feeders have grooved holes which add no benefit but can trap moisture causing mold and bacteria. It can make birds sick and even kill them.

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Simple, smooth and easy to clean.
Best feature without grooves where mold and bacteria can grow.

Now you are ready to sit back and watch the hummingbirds aerial acrobatics, knowing that you are providing a safe source of food that won’t harm them.

A ruby-throated female rests for an instant after grooming.
A ruby-throated male sits on my feeder enjoying some non-toxic homemade nectar.

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