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Red Alert for Hummingbirds

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Don't buy this. Don't pay $6.49 for something that you could make much better yourself for about a dime. This is not hummingbird food. It's sugar water, tarted up to look pretty with Red Dye #40. And it's really, really bad for hummingbirds. Read on.


She came to me as they all do, over the phone, with a worried, uncertain voice describing her predicament. She’d blundered into a chemical plant and was found, disabled, around 11 at night. Who knows how long she’d been there, circling the ceiling, bumping her tiny head until she fell senseless at someone’s feet? Repeated efforts to get her to drink nectar had failed, and she was fading fast. I met the caller in town, he on his lunch break, and he opened a makeshift containment system that consisted of two Chinet bowls, lined with tissues and taped together. She was lying on her side, curled in a C, as I would be were I a hummingbird who had been without food for 18 hours. I took the syringe of bright red nectar and inserted her bill into it, as he had repeatedly tried. I held her until she began to struggle, and in struggling her bill opened slightly. Some nectar flowed in and her tongue at last began to flicker, then lash, and red nectar poured out of the corners of her mouth as she took sustenance for the first time. Poor little thing. I smiled at the man. “The key is to piss them off enough so they cuss at you, and their bill opens, and then they get what you’re trying to do.”


He told me that she’d been able to fly when they first found her, as high as 12 feet in the air, but only in a tight spiral. That’s OK, as long as she can fly and get altitude, I thought. As long as her wings work, she has a chance at being a hummingbird again, instead of a sad little scrap of feathers like she is now.

I took her home and made a place for her in a ten-gallon tank, lined with paper towels and fitted with low perches and a feeder.


I filled it with Nektar-Plus, a hummingbird maintenance diet that includes proteins and vital nutrients—a far cry from the dyed commercial “hummingbird food” she’d been offered. I don’t fault people for buying it; the labeling makes it seem so much better than simple table sugar and water, but it’s not. It’s horrid. If you didn’t have doubts about feeding commercial preparations, check this out. She’d last had commercial nectar around 2 pm on Tuesday. At 2 pm on Wednesday, her droppings still were dyed vivid red.


Red dye that is used to color commercial “hummingbird food” (generally Red Dye #40) is derived from coal tar or petrochemicals. It has proven carcinogenic and mutagenic (meaning that it induces tumors) in rats and mice. Further, it decreases reproduction rates and increases the incidence of both internal and skin tumors in these animals. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and Norway, but is still in use in the U.S.

Because it has not been directly tested on hummingbirds, manufacturers of artificial nectars containing red dye are on solid ground when they claim that no proof exists that it is harmful to hummingbirds. That’s true. But neither is there any research that indicates that red dye is not harmful to hummingbirds. They also state that the dyes used are FDA approved for human consumption. That’s true, but the FDA has also set limits for consumption, and recommends that people not ingest large quantities of a single dye product. However, when we set up a hummingbird feeder with dyed nectar, this is just what we’re encouraging hummingbirds to do. And that’s the core of the problem.

How much red dye does a hummingbird consume when it visits a feeder containing artificially colored nectar?  A banded and color-marked rufous hummingbird observed by hummingbird researcher David Patton took an average of 10 grams of nectar from the same feeder each day. A popular dry nectar mix contains .21 mg. of dye per gram of dry mix. Combined with water as directed, a gram of the solution contains .04 mg of Red #40. A hummingbird taking 10 grams of the mix ingests about .42 mg. of red dye per day. This works out to .12 mg/g of body weight. It doesn’t sound like much, until you note that the World Health Organization recommends a daily limit of only .007 mg/g of body weight in humans. And DNA damage in mice showed up at concentrations as low as .01 mg/g of body weight.

**Thanks to Stacy Jon Peterson, author of the original piece from which these calculations come. And to Sheri Williamson, for alerting me. If you'd like to learn more, go here.


The stunning truth is that a hummingbird taking artificially dyed nectar may be ingesting the dye in concentrations that are 17 times the accepted daily intake recommended for humans, and 12 times higher than the concentration found to induce DNA damage in mice. And they may be ingesting it every single day, all summer long. Yikes.  Suddenly, the anecdotal reports from hummingbird rehabilitators of bill and liver tumors in hummingbirds known to feed on dyed nectar are cast into an alarming light. It’s true that no solid research yet exists to prove that red dye is harmful to hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are not humans; are not mice. But all hummingbird feeders have red parts that serve to attract the birds, and artificial nectars have little if any added nutritional value over sugar water. We’re only pleasing ourselves with the dyed nectar. After all I’d read, I wondered why anyone who loves hummingbirds would feed them something that might be harmful to them, in concentrations that are 17 times what’s thought to be safe for humans.

If you'd like to know what happened to this little hummingbird, just hit Hummingbird Hospital Part II. And from there, you can hit Newer Post and get the rest of the story. We all love the rest of the story.

Thanks for letting me bend your ear about this. Now, on the tiny chance you've gone out and bought that ruby-red stuff, go dump it down the sink and mix up one part table sugar to four parts water. Boil it, let it cool, fill your feeders with something about 1/10 the cost that won't harm these precious little mites.

This post has gone through the roof, with almost 20,000 unique views since I posted it! I've been asked how to clean hummingbird feeders.  I'll write the answer here for your convenience. 
 I can tell you what I do. First, I avoid any feeder that can't be completely disassembled for washing. Second, I take the entire feeder apart and wash every part in very hot water with a little dish soap. Yep, soap. I rinse thoroughly, allow to dry, and refill. I use brushes and Q-tips around nectar ports.
If you've got mold problems, you're putting too much solution in and letting it sit too long. Put out only as much solution as will be taken in two or three days. If that means going to a smaller feeder, so be it.
The other thing that really helps, I've found, is to use filtered water for nectar solutions. Since I got a water filter for our home (it has four filters and a UV finisher) I used only that water for nectar, and I never have mold. But then again, I never let it sit for longer than five days in cool weather and three in warm weather, whether they're drinking it or not.

I also boil up 1:1 sugar-water concentrate (one cup white table sugar to one cup water) and store that in a jar in my fridge. When it's time to make up solution, I add one part concentrate to three parts filtered water. Much, much easier than mixing the 1 part sugar, 4 parts water solution every time. If I make several cups of concentrate, I've got nectar fixings for a long time. And I'm not taking up a bunch of room in my fridge with dilute solution. Been there, done that!


Hope this helps.



28 comments:

Julie, I love your blog. I was wondering, could you explain how important the boiling step is? I often just heat the water in the microwave until it's hot enough to dissolve the sugar completely; is there something wrong with doing it that way? Thanks!

Rebecca, Thanks! This all depends on how clean you keep your feeders, and how fast the nectar goes down. If you're cycling it through and thoroughly washing your feeders in hot soapy water every few days, this should be fine. I like to start with boiling water just because it kills bacteria and the solution should keep better. We have a water machine in our house that filters our water and sends it through an ozone cycle as well. I use the hot water function on that for my nectar and have had no problem at all with mold or grossness, which was an issue when I was using tap water.

Thanks for helping to spread the word, Julie. I'd like to give a plug to my friend and hummingbird banding colleague Stacy Jon Peterson, author of the original article that the dye and consumption data came from. He's been one of my staunchest allies in the ongoing War on Red Dye. The original page is gone, but it lives on via the Wayback Machine.

Keep spreading the word Julie.
We have up to 10 nectar feeders going by mid August.

I had been told to make my own nectar from the get-go because of that dye. I was told boiling the water and then adding the sugar was a way of killing off anything in the water (bacteria, etc.). I can't wait for the hummers to arrive up here in CT! I am sharing your post on this. Thanks!

Hello, I was wondering if you knew where to find deserted nests. Or if they reuse their nests each year, i won't mess with them. I'm doing a display in our children's area of our public library. I want to display eggs/nests of all diferent kinds of birds. Do you think you could help with this? Thank you!

Thank Julie: the sort of thing one should have known but just the easy "solution" I'm likely to succumb to.

Posted by Anonymous April 9, 2015 at 5:11 AM

Hi, lifeinthemindif.... It is actually illegal to possess nests of real birds. I know you wouldn't be harming birds to get them, but it is a federal issue due to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed back in the 50s. It is illegal to possess any parts of birds, nests, eggs, etc. without a permit. This act helped keep bird populations from being decimated by people who collected eggs, etc., so it's intent was good, but it's not well known outside of bird expert circles. The library and you could be in trouble if you put the nests on display unless you had a permit from US Fish & Wildlife, though.

A great post! We were fortunate over 30 years ago to have been provided this great advice from a birding friend and we've tried to spread the word ever since.

I read through all the posts on recovery and release. What a happy ending!

Is there anything safe to color it with? I had always understood that the bright color attracted the hummers.

Posted by Anonymous April 9, 2015 at 10:22 AM

Anon, all you have to do is look at any hummingbird feeder to see the red parts that do all the attracting. Coloring the solution is totally unnecessary. Beet juice was used by Perky Pet for awhile as a natural colorant, but it has unsafe levels of iron in it. So I guess they decided to go back to good ol' carcinogenic Red #40. Just let the red plastic do its work. Or tie a bright ribbon above the feeder until they find it. But they'll find it.

I use a feeder that is made of red glass. That's all the birdies need to attract them! My friend Robin Chanin gave me the recipe for sugar water and that's all I've ever used.

And I agree about the boiling: it seems to keep the mold at bay in the feeder.

Thanks guys!

Posted by Anonymous April 9, 2015 at 10:57 AM

THANKS SO MUCH, JULIE!!! Awesome post...

I use distilled water and still bring it to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Comments?

I use distilled water and still bring it to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Comments?

Great article! I saw this posted on a Huntington Beach, Ca community forum. I noticed it was written by Zickefoose. I recall from my family tree, I am related to Zickefoose family. My maiden name is Crawfis- the Crawfis family from Ohio. Do you think we could be related??

This one is a real public service, and I'd love to see it on Facebook because of the exposure to people who put up hummer feeders. It's that important. Don't think I've seen it there yet, so, if you don't mind and aren't inclined to post it yourself, I'd like to. Had NO idea that shit was so bad for the little hummers. Thank God we already had learned the 4:1 combo and have been making ours for years. Only downside is Lee puts it in used Poland Springs bottles, so every once in a while, I take a big swig of sugar when I'm not expecting it - Agggggh!

I avoid artificial colors in our food; it never made sense to me to feed it to hummers. Now that I only buy organic evaporated cane juice (instead of refined sugar), I hope my hummers are even better off. :-)

Sharing this on FB (even though I dislike the platform) to help spread word and save hummers.

Thank you for helping to spread the word, keep it up! Every bit of communication helps!

Our first hummingbirds have shown up at the door where we put our feeder, looking in and yoohooing to make sure we know they're back. We've been using our own mix for years and they have absolutely no trouble finding the feeder. Some seasons they will empty it in a day. Unfortunately I'm going to have to post an unhappy hummer event on my blog for Sunday.

Excellent article Julie. When I give presentations I always emphasize the dangers of red food colouring and recommend that hummingbirders make their own nectar from sugar and water. Hope you don't mind but I've posted this article on Hummingbirds Canada and the Ontario Hummingbird Project facebook pages

Happy humming,
Cindy Cartwright
www.ontariohummingbirds.ca

I've worked with hummingbirds for almost 40 years, and along with my fellow hummer 'experts', have been fighting the red dye battle for years. I would like to add my two cents worth, regarding the sugar water solution. First, the water does not have to be boiled, but the solution made from boiled water will last longer. Always boil the water BEFORE adding the sugar, or you will be feeding a more concentrated syrup. Distilled water is not recommended. Tap water is fine, unless you have a soft water system. At the Zoo where I worked with hummers originally, we used warm tap water so that the sugar would dissolve easier. We also provided live fruit flies for protein, and the life span of our Hummer population was 10-15 years on the avejewelsThanks for the great article, and let's continue to educate the masses about the proper way to feed these beautiful little jewels!

I am so totally supportive of your blog here. I shared it on my page at Hummingbird Haven https://www.facebook.com/Hummingbird-Haven-269312359840076/ Great write up.

I would love to see an article about cleaning the feeder, mold issues, best way to clean, etc. If you have covered this in the past please provide a link.

Thanks for sharing, Sojourner! You've given this blog a real kick in the butt! Woo! Glad so many folks are getting religion about artificially dyed hummingbird "food."

Linda Ivanov, I don't have a link to anything iI've written on cleaning hummingbird feeders. I can tell you what I do. First, I avoid any feeder that can't be completely disassembled for washing. Second, I take the entire feeder apart and wash every part in very hot water with a little dish soap. Yep, soap. I rinse thoroughly, allow to dry, and refill. I use brushes and Q-tips around nectar ports.
If you've got mold problems, you're putting too much solution in and letting it sit too long. Put out only as much solution as will be taken in two or three days. If that means going to a smaller feeder, so be it.
The other thing that really helps, I've found, is to use filtered water for nectar solutions. Since I got a water filter for our home (it has four filters and a UV finisher) I used only that water for nectar, and I never have mold. But then again, I never let it sit for longer than five days in cool weather and three in warm weather, whether they're drinking it or not.

I also boil up 1:1 sugar-water concentrate (one cup white table sugar to one cup water) and store that in a jar in my fridge. When it's time to make up solution, I add one part concentrate to three parts filtered water. Much, much easier than mixing the 1 part sugar, 4 parts water solution every time. If I make several cups of concentrate, I've got nectar fixings for a long time. And I'm not taking up a bunch of room in my fridge with dilute solution. Been there, done that!

Hope this helps.

I shared your information of Facebook! I have known for many years that red food dye is bad for hummers. I learned about it from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, AZ. They claim that the dye can cause tongue cancer.
Thanks for the article !
Bill

Posted by Bill M. /Ohio April 8, 2016 at 10:36 AM

Thank you! I was making my own nectar last year but was adding color. The first hummingbird was spotted in Connecticut today so it's time to get that feeder going. My 84 year old Mom loves watching them.

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