By Cheryl McRoberts, Executive Director @ TheABEF
To dye or not to dye?
I did not know. I can tell you exactly what to feed an eagle, exactly how many grams of food, Vitahawk, and Sunshine Factor are needed to keep raptors healthy in human care.
Today I admit after many years of faithfully feeding hummingbirds, I did not know I had been doing it all wrong. It has always been easy to provide sweet nectar for the hungry hummingbirds, but it is equally easy to make mistakes with nectar that can jeopardize the birds’ health. In my research, I have come to realize at the very least, a minor mistake might discourage hummingbirds from visiting, but major errors could create toxic, dangerous nectar that may be fatal to the hummingbirds who sample it. The question I had was: to dye or not to dye the nectar?
I was wondering if the red dye is harmful to the hummers after my grandson had red dye removed from his diet and witnessing the change in him. My inquiring mind had to know as I reached for my red dye for my feeders. Nectar is the largest component of a hummingbird’s diet, but a single bird’s consumption of dye through colored nectar can be extreme. After researching, there are no studies that have been done solely on hummingbirds and different red dyes or dye concentrations. The birds’ physiology, metabolism and nutritional needs are sufficiently different from humans and sources agree that dye which is safe for human consumption may not be valid for hummingbirds.
Nectar in its natural form is colorless, and adding red dye to a hummingbird recipe is simply adding one more chemical to the birds’ food – a chemical they do not need. Red dye has no nutritional value for the birds, and is only an unnecessary additive. Unofficial studies have not shown hummingbirds to have any significant preference for visiting feeders with red dye when compared to feeders offering clear nectar. Instead, the strength of the sugar solution and the cleanliness of the feeders are more instrumental in the birds’ feeding preferences.
The key point in deciding whether red dye is harmful to hummingbirds is simple. There is no conclusive research saying the dye is dangerous to the birds, but there is also no long-term research saying it is safe. When making a decision about red dye for nectar, many backyard birders prefer to be cautious and avoid unnecessary and potentially dangerous chemicals.
I have learned that it is possible to attract Hummingbirds without red dye, its simple. My reasons are as follows.
- Most hummingbird feeders have red caps, bases or floral decorations, and that color is sufficient to attract the birds without the need for red dye. This makes the red dye serve no purpose.
- The dye in colored nectars is red dye #40, named Allura Red AC. Red dye #40 was originally made from coal tar, but it is now made mostly from petroleum. Read that last sentence again, please. This does not sound good for ingestion by me or by hummingbirds.
- Nectar which is made with water and simple table sugar at a 4-1 ratio will closely replicate the naturally clear nectar found in flowers.
- The red dye passes through the hummingbird. The dye stains their excretions red. These indicators mean the red dye is “not metabolized, but passes through the kidneys, where it might cause problems.” (Source: Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History
- You can make clear nectar at home, with no trips to the store to buy more nectar will attract and feed all the hummingbird’s you can handle!
Further, the FDA recommends that humans do not ingest large quantities of a single dye product, but this is exactly what happens to hummingbirds at feeders with the red syrup: a steady diet of one dye.
I have a request of you if this blog has convinced you to discontinue the use of red dye in your nectar. Share with your friends and family, do it for the birds!
In closing I have chosen not to dye, at least in regard my nectar.