Hummingbirds … And the Hazards of Store-Bought Red Nectar
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tells us there are 42 million “backyard birders” in the United States. Forty-eight million of us — that’s a fifth of the country’s population — regularly travel at least a mile from home to watch birds.
Hummingbirds are beloved by birdwatchers, and for good reason. These tiny birds, measuring between three to five inches, can flap their wings 80 times per second — and this astonishing wing speed creates the hum. Hummingbirds are delightful to behold, flying upside down, sideways and even backwards, until they hover as they feed on the nectar that keeps them humming. A hummingbird in action rivals a Cirque de Soleil performance.
Graced with long, thin and pointed bills, these birds use their long tongues to ingest flower nectar, tree sap, insects and pollen every 10 to 15 minutes. They eat more than their own weight in nectar each day, and to do so they visit hundreds of flowers. Their metabolism is such that they’re always just hours away from starving to death, Reed Hainsworth and Larry Wolf once wrote in Wildbird Magazine.
At least 320 species of hummingbirds exist within the Western Hemisphere, from southeastern Alaska to southern Chile, with most species living in the tropics. More than half the species are found in South America.
Ruby-throated and Rufous hummingbirds appear in the northeastern United States, too. Most hummingbirds in the United States and Canada migrate south in fall to spend the winter in Northern Mexico or Central America. Only the migratory Ruby-throateds breed in North America east of the Mississippi River and Great Lakes.
In the western United States we see Black-chinned hummingbirds, and Rufous hummingbirds are the most common in western Canada. Anna’s hummingbirds, common from inland California to southern Arizona, and north to southwestern British Columbia, live in North America the whole year long.
Hummingbirds seek out flowers, especially bee balm, red columbine, delphinium and hollyhock; they’ll also home in on a butterfly bush, a Catawba rhododendron, or a rose of Sharon. Other plants they love include trumpet vines and trumpet honeysuckles, cardinal vines, lanatana, fuchsia and silk trees.
Red Dye: An Attractive Nuisance?
Backyard birders often attract hummingbirds to their yards and feeders with commercial nectar which simulates the natural sugar properties of the nectar-producing flowers. The birds are naturally drawn to bright, nectar-producing flowers, usually red. So many commercial nectars designed to attract hummingbirds to feeders contain a petroleum-based dye, Red Dye # 40. Also known as Allura Red, it is used in various foods, drugs and cosmetics sold for human consumption.
While Red Dye # 40 is approved by the FDA in the United States, it has been banned in several European countries, including Belgium, France, Sweden and Denmark. In 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called on the Food and Drug Administration to ban Red Dye #40, citing claims that petrochemical dyes contain known carcinogens and contaminants.
Anne-Katrin Titze, a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, calls the use of artificial additives such as dye a “foolhardy and unnecessary act of carelessness.” Moreover, dyed nectars do not necessarily attract more hummingbirds when red f eeders themselves would do that. Feeders often also have floral decorations to attract the birds.
What the Pros Do
The Wild Bird Fund Center, a non-profit organization in Manhattan that provides emergency care for wild birds and other animals, is New York City ’s central resource for wildlife emergency care and rehabilitation. Wild Bird Fund rehabilitators are licensed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and are uniquely permitted, through the U.S. Interior Department, to work with birds protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act.
Rita McMahon, co-founder and director of the Wild Bird Fund, explains that the rehabbers avoid commercial sugar waters for nectar-feeding birds as they consider these foods inadequate. “We buy and use Nektar Plus, which is more expensive, but provides full nutrition,” she said. Produced by a German company, Nektar Plus uses no artificial coloring and is sold online.
The Wild Bird Fund recently rehabilitated and released two hummingbirds. The birds were fed Nektar Plus liquid out of a bright red artificial flower that volunteers crafted from red veterinary wrap attached to a 3 cc syringe.
We’re grateful to know these creative, kind people work in the city in case we come across any emergencies. Meanwhile: Happy birding!