Is Food Coloring Bad for Hummingbirds?

Making sweet water for hummingbirds is quite easy. All you have to do is mix 1 part sugar and 4 parts water, and you have got yourself homemade nectar, which is almost similar to the nectar hummingbirds get from flowers and ripe fruits.

Often people add red food coloring to sweet water to attract hummingbirds. This begs the question: Is food coloring bad for hummingbirds when suitable for human consumption? This controversial debate has been going on since the 1900s, and, to this day, there’s no right answer to it.

Quick Answer

There is no scientific proof as of yet that red dye is harmful to hummingbirds. However, it all depends on the type of food coloring used. A study conducted on rats and mice showed that it could harm rodents at a certain level. Most people believe that red food coloring harms the liver and kidneys of hummingbirds, a thought that came into their minds through a commercial.

To give you the right answer and put this debate to rest once and for all, we browsed the internet and gathered all the information so that you can decide for yourself whether you should add food coloring to the nectar you make or not, and if it is okay to buy red-stained nectar:

Tale of the Red Dye

After introducing red dye in the 1900s, not many birders had any concerns about how it would affect hummingbirds. However, in the 1970s, researchers became curious about its side effects. At that time, they believed that manufacturers were adding Red Dye No. 2 called Amaranth in food, as well as cosmetics and drugs. It had potential links to cancer, a discovery made while doing experiments on lab rats. As a result, the FDA banned the dye immediately and removed it from products in 1976.

Next came Red Dye No.3, which was restricted in 1990. However, the FDA did not ban this dye. Since the dye did not receive approval on a certain level, birders became skeptical about whether they should use it or not. Today, the most common dye used in the US is Red Dye No. 40. This dye contains coal tar, which comes from petrochemicals. Again, though no research proves this coloring is harmful to hummingbirds, we still suggest that you don’t use it.

Why Not Use Red Dye?

Red Dye No. 40, which also goes by the name Food Red 17 or Allura Red AC, has received FDA approval for human consumption. Product makers add this dye to food, tattoo ink, drugs, and cosmetics. However, there are many concerns related to children’s health, which include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavioral issues. Hence, many countries have banned this dye, including Denmark, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Australia.

How Does Red Dye Affect Hummingbirds?

The Hilton Pond Center has a couple of images uploaded on its website that show how red dye works in the tiny bodies of hummingbirds. Julie Zickefoose, a naturalist, made this observation while rehabbing hummingbirds. The birds had fed on red dye for a long time before they entered her care. After a few days, she saw red droppings and red stains in their habitat. This experiment proved that hummingbirds do not metabolize red dye fully, and it passes through the kidneys.

The Use of Red Coloring – Why Not?

Early bird watchers came across a revelation that the red color attracts hummingbirds the most. This is why most bird feeders are painted. With this thought in mind, they started adding red dye to the nectar. Soon, store owners followed the trend and started selling red-colored nectar.

The idea behind using red was to attract as many hummingbirds to the backyard as people could. This made sense in the beginning because, in the early days, bird feeders were made of clear glass bottles or tubes. Now that the feeders are available in red color, there’s no need to use red dye for adding additional attractive value.

If the red color of the bird feeders is not attracting hummingbirds to your backyard, there are plenty of other things you can do. You could go for a natural red source, such as fruit punch, cranberry, or beet juice. However, keep in mind that you shouldn’t use processed juice, as it may already have artificial dyes. Adding this juice to your homemade nectar will contaminate it and dilute the sweetness.

Not all juices have the same amount of sucrose, and since hummingbirds will come to the feeders twice a day or sometimes more, they might consume extra sugar. It’s best not to complicate things and fill the feeders with homemade nectar.

Following is more information that will explain why it’s better to stick simple sweet water:

Red Dye Contains Toxic Chemicals

All commercial nectars have petroleum in them. This includes Red Dye No. 40 as well. Though the FDA has approved this dye, making red-colored nectars safe for hummingbirds, there’s simply too much uncertainty surrounding the color. According to the Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue, red dye had devastating effects on their hummingbirds. After feeding them red-colored nectar, the Rescue Center claimed that in 24 hours, 2 of their hummingbirds had passed away. They also said that red dye is responsible for liver and beak tumors, liver and kidney complications, and weak eggshells.

Side Effects of Red Dye

Hummingbirds that consume red-colored nectar experienced varying levels of sickness, including urinating red dye. Some hummingbirds also had red droppings, which they continued to pass for the next two days.

Not Safety Tested

As mentioned earlier, no concrete studies prove red dye is harmful to hummingbirds. Most of the side effects talked about are either assumptions or observations made in an uncontrolled environment. However, licensed rehabbers claim that red dye lingers to high mortality in hummingbirds, along with liver and bill tumors.

Extremely High Dose

The amount of red dye added in commercial nectars is not the same. Every bottle of red nectar has the red dye in different concentrations. Since hummingbirds consume nectar 18 licks/second, they could be drinking a large amount of red dye, which can be harmful. The daily recommended red dye amount for human beings is 3.2 mg. At the rate hummingbirds consume nectar, they ingest 1000 mg of red dye.

Unnecessary Expense

Last but not least is the unnecessary expense. We have already discussed that red dye is of no use to hummingbirds. It may or may not cause side effects, but why take the risk? It’s better to paint the feeder red and attract more hummingbirds than feeding them red dye and making them sick.


In conclusion, red dye does not hold any value when you want to attract hummingbirds. There are plenty of safer methods to achieve the same results.

So, instead of buying red nectar, why not make it yourself at home. The natural nectar will work the same, and you will have the pleasure of seeing hummingbirds flock to your bird feeders to fill their tiny stomachs.