Several decades ago, one of my friends suggested that I set out jelly and oranges for orioles. She said orioles in her yard lost interest in oranges by Memorial Day, but they fed on grape jelly throughout the summer. She was a bird bander who tracked her backyard birds, and so she had proof that some nested successfully and returned year after year. I tried it, and voila! Orioles and catbirds have always been the main takers in my yard, but an occasional Brown Thrasher or Cape May Warbler stops by, too.
Jelly is far stickier and sweeter than any natural food; feeding it safely involves important caveats. Over the years, I’ve reduced my own jelly offerings to spring and fall migration, mostly during cold spells when hungry migrants need extra calories.
Putting out large quantities of jelly presents a clear and present danger to birds, which can get stuck in it. In 2004, a Red-breasted Nuthatch got hopelessly mired in my own jelly feeder. I managed to rescue it and, as a licensed wildlife rehabber, knew how to bathe it. Since then, I’ve heard several similar firsthand accounts, all involving large amounts of jelly in cereal bowl-sized containers. Small amounts in small containers would not get birds stuck.
In late spring and summer, I caution against letting individual birds visit jelly feeders more than a few times a day. And if adults bring their young to feed on jelly more than once or twice a day, I suggest removing the feeders: Growing chicks and adults facing their end-of-summer molt need protein more than carbs. Most songbirds time their fall migration for when food is abundant, fueling nocturnal flights with heavy daytime feeding. A bird may remain in an area for a few or several days, but when fruit is abundant (especially in the eastern half of the continent), many birds use our backyards as fast-food joints, eating and moving on. A quick high-calorie meal gives them a helpful if unnecessary boost.
Some people set out grape halves to avoid the stickiness and excessive sweetness of jelly. The sugar content of grapes is certainly closer to that of natural foods, but most fruit grown for human consumption has been bred for higher sugar content than wild fruits. In my experience, grapes grow moldy and goopy too quickly in warm weather to be useful, but some people find them quite suitable.
No scientific studies have been conducted to determine whether jelly’s benefits outweigh the problems it poses, nor about whether sugar-based or high-fructose corn syrup jellies are better. (Those with artificial sweeteners have zero nutrition and are dangerous.) Feeders provide only a tiny fraction of a wild bird’s daily calories, so studies of captive birds aren’t relevant; all the information I’ve been able to find about feeding jelly to wild birds is anecdotal. But banded orioles did return year after year to my bird-banding friend. That’s a compelling data point. — Laura Erickson
Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. This article appeared in the September-October 2017 issue. Laura is a co-author of many books, including Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds, and the author of Laura’s Birding Blog. In February 2014, she received the American Birding Association’s highest honor: the Roger Tory Peterson Award.
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