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The Truth About Red Dye in Hummingbird Nectar

Female_Ruby-throated_Hummingbird_at_feeder
What’s in your hummingbird feeder? The great debate between giving hummingbirds nectar with red dye or giving them nectar without red dye rages on with both sides standing their ground.

Many claim that the red dye in nectar causes tumors in hummingbirds while others say it’s perfectly safe. This article will give a brief breakdown on the state of red dye in nectar.

So is nectar dyed red harmful to hummingbirds?

The answer is complicated because there is no definitive yes or no.

Anecdotal evidence states that hummingbird eggs become abnormally thin and brittle as the result of drinking dyed nectar. In reality, these reports are likely confused with the effects of the once widespread pesticide DDT.

On the other hand, red dye is said to cause damage in mice when consumed. While red dye is FDA approved, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for animals.

According to Hummingbirds.net, Perky-Pet’s Ron O’Kane fervently stands behind red dye and continuously claims that no one has found any proof it’s harmful.

Here’s an excerpt from his standard response to questions about red dye:

Rumors about red dye being bad for hummers have been around for many years. Each time that rumor surfaces, we do our best to track it down to see if there is any basis in fact. I am most happy to report that in every instance we’ve found not only no conclusive evidence of harmful effects of coloring, but in every case have found absolutely NO EVIDENCE AT ALL! At one time, we even offered a $100 reward to the first person who could send us a copy of any legitimate research. We still have our $100! Some liquid red dyes contain propylene glycol, a refined alcohol that is sometimes used as antifreeze. That is why Perky-Pet uses dry, USDA approved dyes and discourages the addition of untested red dyes by our customers to color nectar.

Hummingbirds.net has a pretty interesting teardown of the email you can read for yourself.

While there are no definitive studies that prove dyed nectar is harmful for hummingbirds, there are also no studies that prove dyed nectar is safe for birds.

Does red dye in nectar help attract hummingbirds to your feeder?

414120The simple answer to this question is yes, but there’s always a “but.” Hummingbirds do find the color red more appealing, but if you’re using a hummingbird feeder, chances are it’s already optimized to attract hummingbirds.

Additionally, you could tie some red ribbon to the feeder to color the outside of the nectar bottle.

In terms of red nectar, a few experiments also revealed hummingbirds actually prefer clear nectar, which is what nectar actually looks like in real life.

Should I avoid using nectars with red dye?

If you’ve read from some of the stuff above and over at Snopes, you’ll see red dye isn’t 100% good or bad for hummingbirds. But think of it this way, there is some risk involved for something that really serves no purpose other than being decorative.

While it’s a matter of preference, making your own clear nectar with four parts water and one part sugar is simple, inexpensive and closely matches what the hummers will find in nature.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

5 Comments

  1. You can’t prove something is safe.

  2. Thank you for the information.
    I’ll be leaving the red dye out of my feeders. Why take the chance when it’s not needed.

  3. I tried using the clear feed but none came around, the day I changed it to red I had a couple now I have at least 10 flying around today, its winter here so am surorised they are still here. Between me and my neighbor we have four going!

  4. Guess I will have to go half and half for a while. I still have half of a big bottle of red. I will use it all up before making the switch to clear. Thanks for the information . Guess their is no definite proof one way or the other. Roger S.

  5. Domestic and Ferrell house cats are far more dangerous to Hummingbirds and Songbirds than any red dye in nectar.

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