Friday, May 15, 2015

Return of the Ruby

After clicking on one of the bookmarks in my browser, I anxiously waited for the page to load. Slowly, a map of the continental United States appeared, and the animation started. White, yellow, and orange dots progressively filled the southern tier of states, until finally, a layer of dark red dots reached the level of central Wisconsin, just south of Cable.

“Hurry up, they’re almost here!” I admonished (jokingly) to Elsa Hansen (the Museum’s new Naturalist/Curator) who was scrubbing out our old hummingbird feeder at the sink.

Every spring I watch the migration maps (check them out at and eagerly anticipate the arrival of migrating birds. First it’s the loons (who have been yodeling on my lake for a few weeks now), and then the ruby-throated hummingbirds.

A non-technological indication of the hummers’ impending arrival is the return of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers’ squeaky-toy calls filter through the forest about two weeks before the first hummingbird buzzes in. My journal entry from April 13th includes the note, “FOY sapsucker,” so it’s about time! (FOY is birder-speak for “first of the year.”)

Why the connections between sapsuckers and hummingbirds? They have a special relationship. Sapsuckers drill tiny holes into trees. These sapwells provide them with a variety of nourishment. Sweet liquid comes first, followed by sugar crystals as the leaking sap evaporates. Finally, insects who come and feed at the sapwells become protein-packed snacks.

Hummingbirds know this, too. The males – who must arrive early to claim a territory – have the challenge of finding food before many flowers are blooming.  Curiously, they will seek out sapsucker trees as a source of tree “nectar” and insects. Since hummers are relatively small, sapsuckers seem to act charitably toward their tiny dinner guests. Freeloaders they are not, though. Male humming birds are extremely defensive of their food sources, and so chase off a multitude of other birds and critters who might sip more than their fair share of the sap. Thus, both the hummingbirds and sapsuckers benefit.

Of course, hummingbird feeders can also be an important source of nourishment to the early birds. Hence, our push to get the old feeder out of storage and hung up outside. From Elsa’s furious scrubbing, frustrated noises, and questions like “how do I get the black stuff out of that crevice,” it became clear that we were due for a new feeder.
While it’s not necessary to boil the sugar water to sterilize it, it is important to keep your hummingbird feeders sparkling clean, and change the water before the black stuff starts to grow. This one had been put away dirty last fall, and was now a lost cause. Sun-brittled plastic and broken bee guards finalized the decision.

Later, as I stood paralyzed by indecision in front of the vast selection of hummingbird feeders at the hardware store, something else caught my eye. Big jugs of bright red liquid sat on the bottom shelf, advertising “Ready-to-Use Hummingbird Nectar!”

“No!” I gasped in disgust, startling a customer at the end of the isle. Red food coloring is a dangerous additive to hummingbird nectar. No, it’s not the carcinogenic Red Dye No. 2 that was banned in 1976. But its replacement, Red Dye No. 40, has been banned in Europe, while simultaneously being approved by the USFDA for consumption in small quantities.

The catch is that hummingbirds don’t consume nectar in small quantities. In order to power their flight muscles (at 53 beats per SECOND) and their metabolism (at more than 1260 heartbeats per minute), hummers eat more than twice their own bodyweight in nectar and insects each day. At this rate, while including a normal proportion of flower nectar, feeder nectar, and insects in their diet, the average hummingbird would ingest 12 times the amount of red dye shown to cause DNA damage in mice. And the mice weigh four times more. While there is no money available to fund a study on the effects of red dye on hummingbirds, it is safe to say that not using it will save you money, and probably save their lives.

I shook my head and headed home, bright-red, easy-cleaning feeder in hand. With great anticipation, I poured ¼ cup of plain white sugar into a 1 cup Mason jar, screwed the lid on tight, and shook. Soon the crystals dissolved and the water cleared. I filled the feeder, hung it outside my window, and opened my laptop to check the migration map again. A red dot had now appeared in Ashland, WI, a little to my north. They’re here!

Just then, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Zoom! He buzzed past the feeder, his ruby throat shimmering in the evening sun. Closing my laptop now, I scribbled “FOY hummingbird” into my journal, smiling the whole time.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are attracted to the red of your feeder. Adding red dye to the water is completely unnecessary and dangerous to the birds. Photo by my nephew, Isaac Stone, age 6. (With help from Grandpa Larry.)

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