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Gayle Pille: Gotta love those hummingbirds — don’t give them sugar-water solutions with red food dye

You gotta love ‘em. Just about every gardener wants them in their backyard. They’re beautiful, they’re fascinating, they’re entertaining. They’re hummingbirds!

It’s no wonder that hummingbirds are often referred to as “flying jewels.” They are brilliant in color and captivating in personality.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Photo by Mike Hollan

Northern Kentucky is home to a single species of hummingbird, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Of the 23 species of hummingbirds that frequent North America, the ruby-throat is the only one that breeds in the Eastern United States and is the second most widely distributed hummingbird in North America. They are easily attracted to suburban and rural flower gardens and will readily feed on sugar-water solutions offered in artificial feeders.

Sometimes though that sugar-water solution can do more harm than good. It’s always important to keep feeders clean and change the solution frequently, about every other day during hot weather.

And never – I repeat – never buy solution that has red food dye added to it. It can make your hummingbirds sick and even kill them.

Ginger Rood has been rehabilitating songbirds for more than 20 years. She has seen more than her fair share of sick hummingbirds that ingested sugar-water solution made with red food dye.

“Their droppings will be red for days after I get them,” said Ginger. “They won’t start to improve physically until I have them off the red dye solution for several days.”

Julie Zickefoose, a birder, naturalist, writer, licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and artist from Whipple, Ohio recently wrote about the red dye used in hummer solutions and its effects on hummingbirds in Bird Watchers Digest.

Zickefoose pointed out that Red Dye # 40, derived from coal tar or petrochemicals, is the dye that’s normally used to color commercial nectar. It is carcinogenic to rats and mice. Though legal in the U.S., it’s banned in many European countries.

How much red dye is safe for consumption by a hummingbird? According to Zickefoose a hummingbird that ingests approximately .42mg of red dye daily is consuming .12mg/g of body weight. Though that sounds miniscule, in humans the World Health Organization recommends only .007mg/g of body weight. And DNA damage shows up at only .01mg/g of body weight.

That said, no amount of red dye is safe for hummingbirds. So why feed your hummers something that is likely harming them? Especially given the fact that when you make the sugar water solution yourself it costs only pennies on the dollar.

A simple solution of one part granulated sugar to four parts water is recommended. That ratio is very close to the nectar found naturally in flowers that hummingbirds are attracted to; and can provide the nectar equivalent of 2,000 to 4,000 flowers.

Boil the solution for no more than two minutes, cool and store excess in the refrigerator for further use. It’s important to keep feeders clean and change the sugar-water solution every two to three days.

And remember, red dye is NEVER necessary since feeders have sufficient red coloring to attract hummingbirds.


Gayle Pille is a local naturalist and nature writer who many know through her work to establish the five-mile network of nature trails at Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell. She created the cemetery’s popular 25-year-old Wildlife Enhancement Program and works with a small team of volunteers to maintain the cemetery’s wooded walking paths. An avid birdwatcher, Gayle also builds custom wildlife nest boxes for businesses, parks and residences through her business, www.woodlandhabitat.com

Photo by Judy Hollan

Photo by Mike Hollan

Photo by Paul Ice

Photo by Judy Hollan

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One Comment

  1. Lois says:

    Gayle, thanks for sharing about the red food dye and especially an acceptable receipe that won’t risk the lives of these lovely birds. I checked my refrigerator and of course the bottle I had contained #40 red dye. I threw it out.

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