Posted by Roger Lederer   @   1 October 2012 3 comments
6853-hummer and flower.jpg

I get called or e-mailed once in awhile because someone has
the problem of hummingbirds getting trapped in their garage. It happened to me
a couple of times before I figured it out. If you have an electronic garage
door opener, it has a safety pull which you can pull in case of a power failure
or emergency so you can open the door. Invariably, the handle on the safety
pull is red and it hangs in the air in the middle of the garage, tempting
hummingbird passer-by. Solution? Spray the handle black.

 Why are hummers attracted to red? Well, over millions of
years, flowers that need to be cross-pollinated have developed adaptations to
attract insects or birds or even bats. The pollinators come for the food, mainly
nectar, and pick up pollen in the process. The next flower they visit gets some
of that pollen and leaves its own on the pollinator. The birds and insects get
food and the flowers get pollinated. So evolution has created a variety of
flower forms to attract pollinators and in the case of hummingbirds it is often
tube-or trumped- shaped red flowers. 

The shape is to facilitate feeding by
hummers and the red, orange, or bright pink color is their signal to the birds.
Insect-pollinated flowers have a variety of shapes and colors and more 

6855-hummingbird flower.jpgpollen to
attract bugs; insects cannot see reddish flowers as well as they can see
other colors, lessening competition for the hummers.

 So do you have to put out red hummingbird feeders or red
nectar or tie red ribbons around your hummingbird feeder? No, the birds will
find it anyway because they move around and explore quite quickly, but a red
signal will help them find it.

 You can use commercial hummingbird nectar or make it
yourself with table sugar. Most recipes call for 4:1 water to sugar but I
prefer 5:1 as too high a concentration of sugar can cause crystallization of
sugar on their bill and cause bill rot from a bacterial infestation. You can
add red dye if you wish. There is NO EVIDENCE that red dye causes any harm to
the birds, contrary to popular myth. One website admits there is no evidence
but still warns against it! 

 I don’t use hummingbird feeders because they are a pain to
maintain – fill, clean, refill, clean, refill, etc. Hummer feeders set up a competitive territorial situation that
is stressful for the birds and attracts predators. I much prefer to plant
hummingbird flowers, and there are lots of possibilities such as zinnias,
lobelias, fuchias, petunias, sweet pea, salvias, nasturtium, lobelia, digitalis
and asclepias.

 Ever hear the myth that hummingbirds don’t have feet? People
believed it for a long time and the taxonomic order of hummingbirds is
Apodiformes, apod meaning “without feet.” They do have feet, of course, used
only for perching. And recent reclassification puts them 

6854-hummer beak in flower.jpg

in the Superorder
Apodimorphae, if you care to know.

 And why do hummingbirds hum? They don’t know the words.

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Oct 1, 2012
7:04 pm
#1 Jim :

Some people get large numbers of hummingbirds at their feeders. I found this on youtube:

A friend lives near Lake Oroville, she gets this kind of feeding activity for most of the summer.

I only get a few around my house in Chico.

Oct 2, 2012
2:24 pm

“There is NO EVIDENCE that red dye causes any harm to the birds, contrary to popular myth.”

You might want to do a little more research on that, because there’s a lot of evidence in the medical literature.

If you knew that a particular food additive caused serious problems in laboratory animals at doses significantly lower than those found in your own daily intake of that additive, wouldn’t you be concerned for your health? That’s the situation with hummingbirds. They can drink three to five times their weight in nectar and/or feeder solution each day. I’ve run the numbers, and a moderate daily intake (9 g) of a feeder solution dyed bright red with FD&C Red No. 40 (the most commonly used artificial red dye) exposes a hummingbird to a daily dose that is 11 times higher than that found to cause DNA damage in the intestines of lab mice and 15 times higher than the acceptable daily intake for humans set by the World Health Organization.

An early study found that rats fed high doses of Red No. 40 exhibited “significantly reduced reproductive success, parental and offspring weight, brain weight, survival, and female vaginal patency development… substantially decreased running wheel activity, and slightly increased postweaning open-field rearing activity.”

Even relatively small doses of Red No. 40 and other artificial food dyes have been found to exacerbate hyperactivity symptoms in children, especially in combination with the common preservative sodium benzoate. One in-vitro study warned that “daily intake of artificial food colors may impair hepatic functions… when dietary carcinogens are exposed to the liver cells.” Another in-vitro study found Red No. 40 to inhibit respiration in mitochondria isolated from rat liver and kidney cells. (Mitochondria are the “powerhouses of the cell,” and hummingbirds have a much higher density of them in their cells than we do in ours.)

It’s no wonder that Red No. 40 is banned as a food additive in Denmark, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. You can read more about the risks of artificial dyes, including citations of additional medical research, here.

At best, coloring your feeder solution is unnatural and unnecessary. Natural flower nectar is colorless, and any hummingbird feeder worth owning will have plenty of bright color on the outside to attract the birds’ attention. At worst, artificial dyes may be causing unnecessary suffering and premature death in hummingbirds. If you want to color your feeder solution, use fruit juice concentrate (but not beet juice).

Oct 2, 2012
3:52 pm

Thanks for your input. I don’t encourage putting red dye in hummingbird feeders and I agree that Red No.40 can be harmful to some animals. But I reiterate that there is no evidence that it is harmful to hummingbirds; I have searched the ornithological literature in the past, although not recently. I haven’t seen anything to indicate it is bad for the birds. Now, I’m not saying it isn’t harmful to birds, it could be; I’m simply saying it hasn’t been demonstrated. Birds’ physiology is different than that of mammals, so you can’t simply extrapolate mammalian data to birds. Birds, for example, can ingest 20,000 ppm of capsaicin (the protein that makes hot peppers hot) with no effect while mammals will avoid food with as little as 100-1000 ppm of the protein
In any case,there is no need for red dye in the feeders.

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