Jelly is a mainstay food for feeding orioles, but is it really healthy for birds? I’ve been asked by readers how much jelly is too much, and if the birds are getting the proper nutrition on such a sweet diet. It’s a good question, and one birders don’t often think about as they fill dish after dish to entice orioles, catbirds, grosbeaks, mockingbirds, finches, tanagers, and other sweet-loving songbirds.
Jelly for Birds
While any type of jelly can be offered to birds, grape jelly is a perennial favorite. Other flavors, such as blackberry, raspberry, or currant are also good choices, and birds will also sample apple jam and orange marmalade.
Any brand name is suitable, and some wild bird store retailers also offer jellies specifically formulated for feeding birds, without the extra preservatives or additives found in grocery store foods. The jelly could be past its best by date (though should not be rancid or moldy), and even the cheapest generic brands will bring birds in hungry flocks. The only jelly that isn’t suitable is any sugar-free variety made with sucralose, aspartame, or other non-caloric sweeteners, as it is the sugar that gives birds the appropriate energy from this treat and birds cannot digest sugar-free sweeteners.
Jelly Might Be Bad – Or Might Not
But the potential problem lies in exactly the sweetness birds crave from jelly. While natural sweet foods, such as fruits and floral nectar, range from 10-30 percent sugar, processed jelly can be 50 percent sugar or more. Birds’ metabolisms may not be able to process sugar at that high concentration, and their internal organs could be damaged by a diet rich in high-sugar foods, just as humans can become diabetic or suffer other health problems from too much sugar. It is possible that too much sugar may also trigger addictive tendencies, further unbalancing birds’ diets as they seek out jelly rather than forage for more varied food sources.
Read that paragraph above again and note the following words – “potential” “can be” “may not” “could be” “possible” – Unfortunately, there have been no strong, long-term scientific studies on the effects of a jelly-rich diet and how it may impact birds’ health. Bird banders, however, have noted the same birds returning in multiple years with no apparent ill effects, even when the birds are known to be jelly-lovers. This does not mean that excessive jelly poses no problems, but only that it’s still unknown.
Learn more from wildlife rehabilitator and birding expert Laura Erickson’s For the Birds blog.
Healthier Jelly Options
If birders are at all concerned about offering too much jelly at their feeders, there are other options they can use that will give a healthier treat to sweet-loving birds.
- Use only low-sugar or no sugar added jellies. It may take the birds awhile to adjust to the change, but you can start by mixing two jelly types together to help them make the adjustment.
- Offer only small quantities of jelly earlier in the day, and do not refill jelly feeders as frequently. Birds forage from a number of food sources throughout the day, and will get other nutrition after the jelly is gone.
- Offer jelly mixed with crushed or chopped grapes to dilute the processed jelly with natural fruit. This will still have good sweetness but will also offer birds more well-rounded nutrition than jelly alone.
- Plant berry bushes for birds and allow them to forage naturally and pick their own jelly, no dishes or processing necessary. Beautyberry, blackberry, sumac, elderberry, and serviceberry are great options.
When to Stop Offering Jelly Altogether
It may be wise at times for birders to remove jelly from feeding areas completely in order to safeguard birds and ensure they’re getting the healthiest diets. While each bird and birder will have different circumstances and birders should make the best choices for their own situation, it can be best to remove jelly…
- If the jelly is going uneaten so long that it becomes rancid or may be attracting other unwanted wildlife, such as rats, mice, raccoons, or bears, all of which can damage feeders or threaten birds.
- If jelly-loving birds are nesting nearby and may be feeding too much of the sweet treat to their growing offspring. Jelly will not provide the proper nutrition for healthy growth and development.
- If one bird appears to be monopolizing the feeder to the point of never foraging for other foods. These rare instances may indicate an individual’s extreme sugar addiction.
- If birds are becoming coated in the sticky treat to the point where it may be damaging their plumage or causing other flight or mobility difficulties, similar to any pollution problems.
Ultimately, it’s up to every birder whether or not they offer jelly to their backyard birds, as well as how often they refill feeders and how full of jelly they make each dish. Understanding the pros and cons of jelly, including better alternatives, is part of the birding education every dedicated birder should have, and we all have to make our own choices about what we’re comfortable with.
As for me and my sweet-loving backyard birds, I’m perfectly fine offering jelly, but I do so in moderation – as with most foods. The birds get a good treat but aren’t overwhelmed with it, and I enjoy their visits without great concern. And I even enjoy my own peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the same time, but like the birds, it’s not all I eat.