To dye or not to dye, that is the question, but is red dye harmful to hummingbirds?
The Red Dye Scare
The concern about red dye’s harmful effects on hummingbirds originated with the red dye scare in the mid-1970s, when the popular Red Dye No. 2 (Amaranth) used in food, drugs and cosmetics was linked to cancer growth in laboratory rats. The suspected carcinogen was rapidly removed from products, and it was banned by the FDA in 1976.
Today, Red Dye No. 40 (Allura Red) is used for many food and cosmetic colorings. While the FDA has determined that it is safe for consumption, some questionable health concerns, particularly for children, have led to the dye being banned in several European countries, including France, Denmark and Sweden. There have been no conclusive studies, however, that link Red Dye No. 40 to cancer or other detrimental health conditions when it is consumed in the small quantities found in many colored foods.
Red Dye in Hummingbird Nectar
The greatest concern about whether or not red dye is harmful to hummingbirds comes not only from the possible dangers of the chemical itself, but also from how the birds consume it. Because nectar is by far the largest component of a hummingbird’s diet, a single bird’s consumption of dye through colored nectar can be extreme. No studies have been done with hummingbirds and different red dyes, and the birds’ physiology, metabolism and nutritional needs are sufficiently different from humans that the conclusions that agree the dye is safe for human consumption may not be valid for hummingbirds.
Many commercial hummingbird nectars, both powdered mixes and liquid concentrates, include red dye. Because hummingbirds are attracted to red, the dye is useful as a sales point for backyard birding consumers, and red nectar stands out on store shelves more effectively than clear bottles.
Why Dye Isn’t Necessary
Natural nectar is colorless, and adding red dye to a hummingbird nectar 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 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 or not red dye is harmful to hummingbirds is this: 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.
Attracting Hummingbirds Without Red Dye
Attracting hummingbirds is simple, and there is no need for red dye in hummingbird nectar. Many hummingbird feeders have red caps, bases or floral decorations, and that color is sufficient to attract the birds. Adding other red color sources nearby, such as red nectar-bearing flowers, red ribbons, a red gazing ball or red Christmas ornaments can give a hummingbird feeding area an extra burst of color without any risk of unhealthy dyes.
Photo – Hummingbird Feeder With Red Nectar © Bret Stewart