Jelly Is Killing Hummingbirds.
It's time to just say no.
(Listen to the radio version here.)
When I moved to Duluth in 1981, Koni Sundquist, a bird rehabber and bander, told me that the secret to keeping orioles all summer (back when they still nested in both our neighborhoods) was grape jelly. She told me that orioles stop coming to oranges after migration but kept coming to her jelly, spooned into a plastic bowl on a deck railing or platform feeder, all summer.
I never used Koni’s suggestion when it seemed too hot for the jelly to stay fresh—in summer, natural food is abundant anyway. Orioles haven’t nested here in decades, but during some spring migrations when the weather was unusually cold, I’ve had orioles, Cape May and Tennessee Warblers, and Scarlet and Summer Tanagers visit my jelly feeders. In normal years, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Gray Catbirds visit a few times a day in early June, too, before I take the feeders in as the temperatures rise.
Jelly is like fast food—tasty, with plenty of calories when a bird needs a quick pick-me-up. But it’s also like fast food in lacking essential nutrients that birds need. When people tell me orioles bring their fledglings to jelly feeders, I cringe. Growing fledglings and juvenile birds need protein from insects, not jelly!
Jelly lacks essential nutrients that birds need, and has an even worse, potentially lethal problem—it’s sticky.
Jelly has an even worse, potentially lethal problem—it’s sticky. In 2004, when we had a severe cold snap right after insectivores started arriving, my yard was inundated with Cape May Warblers, orioles, and tanagers all hankering after jelly.
On one of the coldest days, I was going to be gone all morning so I plopped half a jar of jelly in one bowl. When I came home at noon, it looked like a crocodile was swimming in the jelly, all submerged except the eyes and bill. A Red-breasted Nuthatch apparently tried hopping over the jelly from one side of the platform feeder to the other and became mired. Had I been a half hour later, he probably would have succumbed to either hypothermia or asphyxiation when he could no longer keep his nostrils above the jelly.
Two lucky things saved his life. First, I was a trained rehabber who knew how to handle and bathe such a tiny bird, and second, this particular nuthatch already knew me. He’d often come to my hands for mealworms, so he was comfortable taking them now between the several warm baths under the faucet that I gave him in the next few hours until he was ready to release. I didn’t see him return to my yard the rest of the day, but the next day he came back—I recognized him by a tiny purplish stain on his lower flank. I was extremely relieved that the texture of all his feathers looked good as new. That taught me to never ever put out more than small spoonfuls of jelly at a time. (You can read the transcript of the radio program I wrote about it at the time here.)
Today, June 3, 2023, I learned of a whole new hazard from feeding jelly from Marge Gibson, the Director of REGI, the state-of-the-art rehabilitation center in Antigo, Wisconsin, who alerted me to this post on REGI’s Facebook page:
Earlier this week REGI admitted three adult Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from different areas, within a two-hour period. They were covered in grape jelly. One patient was deceased on arrival; the others are alive but struggling. Other hummingbirds were admitted earlier in the month, and there is little doubt more will follow.
During the past few years providing grape jelly to orioles has become a popular alternative to the traditional orange slices/halves. Grape jelly was a convenient energy food as it is a “semi solid” substance even in colder temperatures and easy to keep contained in a bowl. It provides a quick source of energy during migration. But then, for whatever reason, the use of jelly, the stuff we’ve always understood to be sticky, even as it covers the faces and clothing of our own children, bypassed logical use, and morphed into a multi-species, year-round jelly feeding frenzied fad.
A problem in hot weather is jelly melts (liquifies) somewhat and therefore is more available to adhere to the bird’s body, feet, and feathers. Some people added water to the jelly and began serving it in larger bowls. This fad occurred even within the birding community. Businesses became involved, developing new types of jelly feeders and bird specific jelly. A photo that became my own personal nightmare was on a birding site recently. It was of an adult Baltimore Oriole perched on a jelly feeder and feeding jelly to its own babies. That behavior is outside the natural history of this species and causes more questions about changes that may be happening due to a high sugar diet. Oranges are a healthier and more safe way to provide high energy food.
REGI’s current recommendation is to stop feeding jelly to birds year-round.
I’ve been writing about feeding jelly since the 1980s, and posting photos of warblers and tanagers at my feeders. Those photos were taken only during exceptionally harsh springs, but now I feel responsible for some of the popularizing of jelly in feeders. Since the horrifying experience with the Red-breasted Nuthatch, I’ve added a lot of caveats, and also posted my own and other people’s concerns about the low nutritional value of jelly, but that hasn’t been enough.
I’ve justified my own feeding jelly because, in 2004 and some later springs, when insects were just not available in the sub-freezing temperatures, people found dead warblers and tanagers in the woods where they’d apparently succumbed to starvation. In extreme situations like that, jelly is better than nothing.
But as that nuthatch proved, even in extreme situations, jelly is still dangerous. Nowadays, people want quick sound bytes, not nuanced information, and many people don’t put the well-being of birds above their own pleasure in watching them. So I no longer have sweet advice about jelly. It’s time to just say no.
Jelly? Just say no.