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Hummingbird Hospital

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

She came to me as they all do, over the phone, with a worried, uncertain voice describing her predicament. She’d blundered into a chemical plant and was found, disabled, around 11 at night. Who knows how long she’d been there, circling the ceiling, bumping her tiny head until she fell senseless at someone’s feet? Repeated efforts to get her to drink nectar had failed, and she was fading fast. I met the caller in town, he on his lunch break, and he opened a makeshift containment system that consisted of two Chinet bowls, lined with tissues and taped together. She was lying on her side, curled in a C, as I would be were I a hummingbird who had been without food for 18 hours. I took the syringe of bright red nectar and inserted her bill into it, as he had repeatedly tried. I held her until she began to struggle, and in struggling her bill opened slightly. Some nectar flowed in and her tongue at last began to flicker, then lash, and red nectar poured out of the corners of her mouth as she took sustenance for the first time. Poor little thing. I smiled at the man. “The key is to piss them off enough so they cuss at you, and their bill opens, and then they get what you’re trying to do.”

He told me that she’d been able to fly when they first found her, as high as 12 feet in the air, but only in a tight spiral. That’s OK, as long as she can fly and get altitude, I thought. As long as her wings work, she has a chance at being a hummingbird again, instead of a sad little scrap of feathers like she is now.

I took her home and made a place for her in a ten-gallon tank, lined with paper towels and fitted with low perches and a feeder.

I filled it with Nektar-Plus, a hummingbird maintenance diet that includes proteins and vital nutrients—a far cry from the dyed commercial “hummingbird food” she’d been offered. I don’t fault people for buying it; the labeling makes it seem so much better than simple table sugar and water, but it’s not. It’s horrid. If you didn’t have doubts about feeding commercial preparations, check this out. She’d last had commercial nectar around 2 pm on Tuesday. At 2 pm on Wednesday, her droppings still were dyed vivid red.

Red dye that is used to color commercial “hummingbird food” is derived from coal tar, and that dye is banned in Europe, a place where people think harder about such things than we do here in the Land of Plenty. Why would anyone in their right mind give something made from poisonous coal tar to a hummingbird? Because they’ve been misled by the manufacturers to believe it’s better than homemade nectar made with white sugar, that’s why. Bad manufacturers. All commercial nectars are is sugar with coal tar dye. It’s up to you whether you want to give that to the hummingbirds in your yard. From there, think about whether you want to give your children “foods” that dye their lips and tongues bright red and blue. Bit of a pet peeve, I guess.

Posting with a high quotient of difficulty (might be the rum, dunno) from the Veranda at Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, I remain your faithful blogservant



Oh, man, that's just scary that the stuff that's being used as dye for hummer food may come from mountaintop mining. Diabolical.

Yes, there are a lot of things in this world that just ain't right, and that's one of them. Nice connection, Catbird.

Sheesh! Those red droppings are scary. Thanks for the lesson in hummer food. Not that I would get any hummers. ;-)

Enjoy the rum.

Oh, I meant to say--yay--for Science Chimp-rehabbing an injured & exhausted hummer.

Wow--you are away from home and still dispensing wisdom. I mean, it's not like you can't do both.
I was one of those suckered in by the commercial stuff. Thankfully, I never attracted enough little birds to keep at it.
So, the stuff got dumped.
Now I am glad.

You want sympathy for difficulties posting from Trinidad?
How about 2k dial up from Rondeau.
I’ll trade you.

We had hummingbirds for the first time this spring; they went crazy for the blossoms on our lilac and quince. Nice to know we don't need the coal industry to help us out.

Ah, she's lovely and I'm hoping she is out hovering again soon. Thanks for this post- I've known enough to mix my own nectar but now I think I'll try some of this Nektar Plus. Really- thank you!

I recently set up a hummingbird feeder and filled it with the red stuff. Thanks for posting this, I'll change it to homemade nectar tonight. Fortunately, the feeder is too recent to have been discovered by any hummers.

Julie, thanks for this very vivid, graphic representation of a hummer on a red-dye nectar diet. I've heard and read from various sources that the "jury is still out" on whether the red dye in commercial nectars is bad for the birds, but I think this proves the point. Surely the nectar manufacturers know about this, but they still sell it anyway. How horrible. Our hummers get only sugar H2O, of course, and I cringe everytime I see nectar sold someplace. I'd like to empty out all those displays and just replace them with a little baggy full of 1/4 cup sugar with a note that says "Just add 1 cup hot/boiling water, stir until dissolved, let cool, and serve something NATURAL to your hummers". And good point about the dyes in kids "foods", too.

I hope this rehab has a happy ending!

Thanks for the graphic description and photos of the red poop. This will really help with getting the truth out. And what great fortitude you have and good spelling, considering. I remember the rum punch at Asa Wright very fondly. Tough work, and you seem to get it.

Ugh. I can't tell you the number of people I've argued with over that powdered mixture garbage because they just SWEAR that the hummers have to have the red stuff to be attracted. Hard to explain, then, why I have so many hummingbirds using the ole water/sugar combo.
That stuff really should be taken off the shelves.
I have a couple "old school" hummer feeders I'm sending a link of your post to Julie... maybe that'll convince them of what I've been telling them all along.

I'm dumping my red humming bird feed tonight.

"Coal tar dyes" were once derived from coal tar, but many now come from petroleum. Still not good, though, and used in lipsticks, hair colorings, and numerous other products.

Only 7 percent of US coal production comes from MTR, so the odds of it being the source of red dye are small.


i just love that people from so many walks of life take the time to catch and care about a little bird.

If one reader throws the commercial dyed stuff out, I've done my job.
Deleriously happy from Trinidad,


More than 1, Julie... I took the liberty of posting a link to your site and this blog entry on Dave's Garden and two people over there said last night they were dumping their red-dye goo stuff.
Every little bit counts... that's how change happens, one person at a time.

Haven't used the red stuff since the free bag that came with my first Perky Pet feeder. Ever since I learned the right way, I make my own sugar solution. (That's 4 parts water to 1 part table sugar, for anyone who might have forgotten.) Change it every 203 days, and don't use honey or artificial sweetners. The former ferments to quickly and may contain bacterial contaminants, the latter has no nutritional value for hummers.

Great post, Julie, and those red droppings are really frightening!

Love this -

er - just re-read my last comment. That's 2-3 (2 OR 3) days, not 203 days. (Think how gross THAT feeder would be!)

~Kathi, the typo-queen

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