Feeding Hummingbirds: Seeing red over dye

When I started feeding hummingbirds more than 30 years ago, almost everyone I knew filled their feeders with a solution of four parts water to one part sugar colored with a drop or two (or three, or four) of red food dye. Something about the idea of coloring feeder solutions troubled me from the start, so I eventually stopped adding dye to my feeder solution. The birds came anyway, so I never used dye in hummingbird feeders again.

Rufous at feeder

A young Rufous Hummingbird feeds on dye-free sugar water, attracted by the feeder’s bright red parts.

I later learned that a colorless solution of ordinary white table sugar in water is remarkably close in chemical composition to the nectar of hummingbird flowers. These nectars are basically solutions of sugars and water, with small amounts of electrolyte salts plus traces of other compounds, most of which are little more than contaminants left over from the conversion of sap (phloem) to nectar (some are distasteful or even toxic!). White table sugar is 99.9% sucrose, a naturally occurring sugar abundant both in the sap of plants and in the nectars of hummingbird-pollinated flowers, and good-quality tap or drinking water provides trace amounts of electrolytes. Natural nectar is colorless, so adding dye is at best unnecessary and unnatural.

Sugar water recipe

A dye-free solution of one part white granulated sugar dissolved in three to five parts good-quality water is how Ramsey Canyon Preserve and other famous feeding stations in southeastern Arizona attract and feed hummingbirds.

I didn’t really become aware of the issue of commercial “instant nectar” products until 1988, when my husband and I moved to Arizona to manage The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve, a world-famous location for hummingbirds. Among the preserve’s attractions were its feeding station, where a colorless 4:1 feeder solution attracted 14 hummingbird species, and its bookstore/gift shop, which sold a wide variety of hummingbirds feeders. The staff and volunteers often had to explain to visitors that there was no color in the preserve’s feeder solution because dye is unnatural, unnecessary, and potentially hazardous, and that we didn’t sell “instant nectar” products in the store because these products are overpriced, overpackaged sugar adulterated with unnatural, unnecessary, and potentially hazardous chemicals.

It turns out that the red food dyes used in some feeder solutions may be much more dangerous than we previously suspected. Medical research has uncovered some alarming effects from smaller quantities of red food dyes than a hummingbird would get from a day’s ration of bright red “instant nectar”! For more on this research, including references to several pertinent studies, see my article on the dangers of red dyes and Stacy Jon Peterson’s FAQ page, “Should I Add Red Dye to My Hummingbird Food?”

Manufacturers of “instant nectar” products have been outrageously reluctant to respond to the concerns of hummingbird enthusiasts. Perky Pet’s approaches to the issue have ranged from offering dye-free and “light” versions of their “instant nectar” to defending it with unfounded claims that the unnamed dye (Red #40, according to company representatives) is “USDA approved” and “non-toxic and harmless to hummingbirds.” It’s actually the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that approves food additives, and no research has ever been done to determine the safety of any food additive, including Red #40, for hummingbirds or any other wild bird.

The more responsible approach would be to replace artificial red dyes with natural colorants, and, after a couple of decades of complaints from hummingbird experts and concerned enthusiasts, Perky Pet took a tentative step in this direction by introducing a liquid concentrate colored with plant and insect extracts. Unfortunately, hopes of a change in philosophy at the company appear to be unfounded. In May of 2005, I had the following e-mail exchange with representatives of Perky Pet:

Why isn’t the new “instant nectar” concentrate with natural colorants on the Web site?
From: Customer Service: Hello, We are currently in the process of adding the newer items to the site. If you’d like to call us, we do take phone orders. Please let me know if I may be of any further assistance. Julie McKinney Outdoor Seasons Perky Pet Products 1-800-854-8111 ext. 140
Thank you for your prompt reply, Julie. I’m actually not at all interested in ordering the product – I’m a hummingbird researcher and staunch advocate of sugar water in feeders – but I find myself in the awkward position of recommending it to people who insist on using colored commercial feeder solutions. Am I being overly optimistic to hope that the introduction of this product means that Perky Pet will begin to phase out its “instant nectars” that contain potentially toxic and carcinogenic FD&C Red #40?
Hello Im sorry but we have no plans to phase out our original nectar. Jeanine
Even though it might be killing hummingbirds? Please review the following summary, which cites FIVE medical research papers on the genotoxicity, developmental toxicity, psychotoxicity, and mutagenicity of FD&C Red #40, often at intake levels LOWER than those to which hummingbirds are exposed by drinking bright red feeder solutions such as Perky Pet’s “Original Instant Nectar”?: http://www.trochilids.com/faq.html#red

At least Perky Pet has wisely backed off on its previous inaccurate and misleading claims that Red #40 is “USDA approved” and “non-toxic and harmless to hummingbirds,” but it’s time the company acknowledged the mounting evidence that an artificial chemical that humans ingest in small quantities without apparent harm could be deadly to tiny hyperactive creatures that can consume three times their weight in nectar and/or feeder solution daily. Just because hummingbirds aren’t dropping dead at feeders doesn’t mean that the high concentration of Red #40 in certain Perky Pet products isn’t harming them.

Regrettably, there was no further response from Perky Pet. This isn’t surprising, given the misleading claims on its packaging and previous responses to consumers and hummingbirds experts (see Lanny Chambers’s red dye page for the complete text of a letter he received from PP). It’s just as well that I don’t like PP’s feeders, because I’m reluctant to buy anything from a company whose response to legitimate concerns is denial and disinformation. I much prefer to patronize companies such as Aspects, Inc. that make quality products and don’t feel compelled to pad their bottom line by selling overpriced boxes of sugar laced with carcinogens.

The bottom line is that “instant nectar” products containing artificial coloring are at best a waste of your hard-earned money and at worst a source of disease, suffering, and premature death in hummingbirds. If you simply can’t live without color in your hummingbird feeder solution, please color ordinary sugar water with a naturally-colored fruit juice concentrate.

Comments are closed.