Search of the Week: “is molasses ok to feed hummingbirds”


Feeding stations in southeastern Arizona attract rare beauties such as Lucifer Hummingbirds with plain old sugar water.

NO. Molasses (and brown sugar, which contains molasses) is absolutely not safe to feed hummingbirds. It’s high in iron, for which nectar- and fruit-eating birds have a very low tolerance. When hummingbirds consume more iron than their natural diet provides, the excess builds up in their organs and kills them slowly and painfully.

As I’ve covered here before, there are only two things that are absolutely safe to put in your hummingbird feeders: white sugar and water. Just add 1 part white granulated sugar to 4 parts good quality water. Stir until dissolved (no boiling necessary). Adding to or substituting for this recipe could put their health at risk, and what intelligent, caring person would want to do that to a hummingbird?

But since there have been so many searches like this lately, let me repeat and expand the list of things that don’t belong in hummingbird feeders:

No-sign-20px Honey
No-sign-20px Molasses
No-sign-20px Any non-white sugar, including brown, organic, “raw,” turbinado, “natural,” Zulka Morena, colored baking sugars, and evaporated cane juice
No-sign-20px Powdered sugar (which contains anti-caking ingredients)
No-sign-20px Pancake syrup, maple syrup, or agave syrup (misleadingly marketed as “nectar”)
No-sign-20px High-fructose corn syrup (e.g., Karo Syrup)
No-sign-20px Artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘n’ Low, Equal, Splenda, or their generics)
No-sign-20px Natural nonnutritive sweeteners (stevia derivatives such as Truvia, Stevia In The Raw, various others)
No-sign-20px Anything containing artificial or nonnutritive sweeteners
No-sign-20px Artificial food coloring, including but not limited to Red #40 and Red #3
No-sign-20px Anything containing artificial coloring (including most “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products)
No-sign-20px Anything containing sodium benzoate or other preservatives (including most “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products)
No-sign-20px Protein or vitamin supplements (protein powder, pet bird vitamins, dried insects, etc.)
No-sign-20px Jell-O or similar products
No-sign-20px Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, or equivalents
No-sign-20px Gatorade or other sports drinks
No-sign-20px Alcoholic beverages of any kind
No-sign-20px Carbonated beverages of any kind
No-sign-20px Caffeinated beverages of any kind
No-sign-20px Fruit juices (except a small amount of concentrate added to sugar water for color, if you must)
No-sign-20px Beet juice or other vegetable juices
No-sign-20px Lemonade, limeade, or other fruit-based beverages
No-sign-20px Coffee, regular or decaf
No-sign-20px Teas, whether black, green, or herbal, regular or decaffeinated
No-sign-20px Dairy products or substitutes
No-sign-20px Vegetable oils
No-sign-20px Soup, broth, or consommé
No-sign-20px Vanilla extract or other natural or artificial flavorings or extracts
No-sign-20px Essential oils or herbal extracts
No-sign-20px Perfumes or other fragrances, whether natural or artificial, designer or fake
No-sign-20px Colloidal metals, including silver, gold, platinum, uranium, plutonium, and unobtanium
No-sign-20px Anything other than pure white granulated sugar and good-quality water. 




Blogroll update

I did a little housekeeping on my blogroll, deleting links to a few blogs that hadn’t been updated in more than a year, updating links to others, and adding several A-list birding blogs whose creators/contributors I had the privilege of birding with this weekend. Enjoy!

“Kitty-cams” document lives of outdoor cats

Injured phoebe

An Eastern Phoebe with a mangled wing awaits death at the jaws of a pet cat.

The National Geographic Society and University of Georgia recently teamed up to apply “critter-cam” technology to understanding the lives of pet cats, documenting not only their predatory habits but the many hazards they face.

The team, led by Kerrie Anne Loyd of the University of Georgia, attached small video cameras to 60 outdoor house cats in the city of Athens, Georgia. The cats’ owners were recruited through newspaper ads and assisted the team by doing daily downloads of video from the cameras.

The most important findings were about cat predation. Loyd said:

In Athens-Clarke County, we found that about 30 percent of the sampled cats were successful in capturing and killing prey, and that those cats averaged about one kill for every 17 hours outdoors or 2.1 kills per week. It was also surprising to learn that cats only brought 23 percent of their kills back to a residence. We found that house cats will kill a wide variety of animals, including: lizards, voles, chipmunks, birds, frogs, and small snakes.

It’s no wonder so many cat owners are unaware that their pets ever kill wildlife. Even if they found every animal their cats brought home, they’d still miss more than three quarters of the death toll.

The cats in the study were outside for only 5 to 6 hours a day on average. It’s sobering to compare these well-fed pets to homeless/feral cats that are outdoors 24/7/365 and may hunt for survival as well as recreation.

Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy, found the project’s findings alarming:

If we extrapolate the results of this study across the country and include feral cats, we find that cats are likely killing more than 4 billion animals per year, including at least 500 million birds. Cat predation is one of the reasons why one in three American bird species are in decline.

Think about that: 4 billion animals, including at least a half billion birds, that die purely because of human irresponsibility.

The cameras also documented risky behavior that should alarm cat lovers: crossing roads, hiding under vehicles, climbing trees, exploring roofs and storm drains, confronting dogs, opossums, and other cats, and killing small mammals that are vectors for diseases such as toxoplasmosis and Lyme disease.

The National Geographic & University of Georgia Kitty Cams Project

American Bird Conservancy: “KittyCam” Reveals High Levels of Wildlife Being Killed by Outdoor Cats

American Bird Conservancy: Cats Indoors

Beet juice in hummingbird feeders? NO!

In Arizona’s White Mountains, hummingbird swarm a feeder filled with colorless sugar water. Coloring of any kind is unnecessary, and the quantities hummingbirds consume increase the health risks of artificial dyes.

A colleague recently contacted me via Facebook to ask if beet juice might be safe if used to color sugar water in hummingbird feeders. I made the mistake of saying “probably” before doing enough research. After reading up on the nutrients found in beets, I’ve got to say “NO!

For decades, hummingbird experts have denounced artificial dyes as unnecessary, unnatural, and potentially harmful, but it’s tough to override the public image of a feeder filled with jewel-like red liquid. As frustrating as it is to see people still coloring their feeder solutions, it’s encouraging that some are looking for benign alternatives to artificial dyes.

The natural coloring I usually recommend is a few drops of raspberry, cherry, or cranberry juice. The pigments in these fruits are antioxidants called anthocyanins. Beet pigments, called betalains, are also antioxidants and are found in cactus fruits and pollens, so they’re something hummingbirds might ingest naturally (though in vastly smaller quantities than they’d get from a regular diet of beet-red sugar water). The problem is that beets are also a good source of iron. That’s not a problem for most humans, but it is for hummingbirds and other nectarivorous birds, as I explained in Feeder Solution Evolution Part I. Vegetable-based dyes made from beet pigments are purified, so you wouldn’t expect much iron to remain. Just juicing or boiling beets runs the risk of extracting deadly iron along with desirable pigments.

Even without the iron issue, there’s a potential stumbling block in the unsubstantiated/undebunked rumor that hummingbirds don’t like beet sugar. If that’s true, then they almost certainly wouldn’t like beet juice, either, since it would contain far higher concentrations of the bitter-tasting saponins blamed for this reported preference.

A Viceroy enjoys the juice of an Englemann’s Prickly Pear fruit.

The good news is that the betalain-rich fruits of some prickly pear cacti (called tunas in Spanish) are much lower in iron than beets (Englemann/Lindheimer Prickly Pear found over most of the Southwest. If you’re lucky enough to live where this species is native, you can harvest ripe tunas using barbecue tongs. Wash thoroughly (wear gloves!) before cooking or juicing to remove dust and spines, and filter the resulting juice to remove any stray spines and other solids that might contribute to fermentation of your sugar water.

The juice will keep over the winter if you freeze it in ice trays and store the cubes in plastic bags in the freezer. Then it’s easy to pop a cube into a fresh batch of sugar water (make large batches or use small cubes—it doesn’t take much to give the liquid a bright color). You can also use the juice to make jelly and syrup, color and flavor lemonade and gelatin, or add a desert touch to your Thanksgiving celebration.

One last issue with betalains in hummingbird feeder solution is that they might perform differently depending on the quality of the water used. These pigments are pH sensitive, turning reddish in acidic solutions and bluish in alkaline ones just like litmus paper. If added to normal tap or bottled water, which is typically neutral to slightly alkaline, prickly pear juice will turn purple to violet. It won’t matter to the birds, of course, but it might take adding a few drops of lemon juice to the solution to get a color similar to that produced by artificial dyes.

What a lot of trouble. Why not stick to plain sugar water?

Related posts: Beet sugar: Maybe a myth, but not debunked Search of the Week: “is molasses ok to feed hummingbirds” Search of the Week: “if refined sugar is so bad for us, then why do we feed it to hummingbirds??” Feeder Solution Evolution Part I: The basics