Why You Shouldn’t Feed Hummingbirds Red Dye

In the same group as bees and butterflies, hummingbirds are not to be forgotten as very important pollinators. When they drink nectar from our flowers, their foreheads rub against the stamens and pistils, thus collecting pollen and moving it around our gardens. They have amazing memories and will remember food sources, returning year after year. That’s why it’s so important to feed them well and safely.

It’s no secret hummingbirds are attracted to bold colors; especially red. Many people end up buying premixed sugar water made with red dye, but many animal rights activists are warning people against using those formulas. It turns out we may be making them sick with the things we’re using to attract them.

Are We Hurting Them?

According to Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue, more and more hummingbirds are being found across the US unable to fly and extremely lethargic, which is unusual considering they typically flap their wings 15-80 times per second, depending on the species. Most of the time, their droppings are bright red as their tiny bodies try to expel what’s poisoning them.

The Tennessee-based organization reported rescuing six hummingbirds in 2016, and within 24 hours, two of them had died. The other four recovered after being kept in a cage and being fed clear sugar water nectar for a period of about 48 hours.

The Red Dye Scare

There are no studies linking hummingbird deaths and illnesses to red dye; there are only stories of eyewitness accounts. There’s reason to believe that red dye is harmful to them, especially when you consider the red dye scare. In 1976, the FDA banned the use of the popular Red Dye #2  in consumer products after it was found to cause cancer in lab rats. Red Dye #3 was banned for many uses in 1990.

Today, Red Dye #40 is widely used in food, drugs, and cosmetics, and although there are no studies proving it can make people or animals sick, there’s enough concern that it has been banned in several European countries.

Nectar is the main source of food for hummingbirds, and if it’s full of red dye, they’re consuming a huge amount of it. Who knows what kind of damage it’s doing to them? It is a chemical, after all.  

Many wildlife organizations are urging people to air on the side of caution and create their own nectar solutions that are free of red dye. It turns out hummingbirds don’t even need it; the nectar they get from nature doesn’t contain dye, and many hummingbird feeders are simply red in color, attracting the birds in a safer way.

Healthy Hummingbird Feeder Recipe

This recipe is super easy to make, cheaper than what you can get at the store, and wonderful for the hummingbirds. Courtesy of Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue.

  • Boil 4 cups of water for 3 minutes
  • Stir in 1 cup of pure granulated sugar
  • Cool to room temperature and add to your feeder
  • Store any leftover solution in the fridge for 7-10 days

It’s important to also keep your feeder clean; Happinest recommends rinsing it out and replacing the nectar every 1-3 days, depending on how hot it is where you live. Never let the nectar get cloudy, and if you ever notice black residue, throw it out right away and make a new batch.

Gardening For Hummingbirds

Beyond hanging feeders around your yard, there are ways to naturally attract hummingbirds, keeping them and your gardens incredibly healthy. I have plenty of nasturtiums in hanging baskets, and the hummingbirds seem to love the deep orange and golden yellow hues.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends any brightly-colored flowers that are tubular since they hold the most amount of nectar:

  • Bee Balm (perennial)
  • Columbine (perennial)
  • Daylilies (perennial)
  • Lupins (perennial)
  • Foxgloves (biennial)
  • Hollyhocks (biennial)
  • Cleomes (annual)
  • Petunias (annual)
  • Impatiens (annual)

The list goes on; there are so many plants that will attract hummingbirds to the garden naturally; just remember to choose bright colors such as red and orange. As an added bonus, making your gardens hummingbird-friendly will also likely attract many other pollinators too!

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.