Care of Hummingbirds: To Dye or Not to Dye

-Since moving to California, I have become besotted with hummingbirds. These graceful little birds are found only in the Americas and until a year ago I had only seen them in photographs and wildlife documentaries. I’d seen slow-motion video footage of the figure-eight beating of their wings but never an actual live bird. They seemed as exotic to me as a kangaroo would to an American.

Now I see them every day. In fact, as I type these words, there is one drinking sugar water from my feeder hanging on my balcony right outside the dining room. It’s perched on the rim rather than hovering but I can see its little head going back and forth as it drinks. The rational explanation for why I’m working at the dining table instead of in my home office is the ceiling fan above me. I suspect the real reason is that I get a better view of the birds from here. With the balcony doors open for the breeze, I can also hear them when they sing.

Oh look, now it seems to be preening its wings! So cute!

While we all know that you shouldn’t feed wild animals, for fear of upsetting the eco-system and encouraging dependency, this is one of the exceptions. Scientists say that hummingbirds need all the help they can get on their long migratory journeys. Urban areas have replaced much of their natural feeding grounds so having a feeder, or planting hummingbird-friendly flowers, help even that out. On a selfish level I’ll also admit that I get a lot of joy out of looking at them!

I bought the feeder at the local hardware store last summer. My environmental principles meant that I forked out extra cash for a feeder made of metal and glass rather than plastic. Besides, I wanted only the best for my hummingbirds!

I also bought a bottle of formula to feed the hummingbirds. The idea was I’d mix one part of the red syrup with three parts of water. The information on the bottle indicated that this was the very best food for hummingbirds:

“Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that hummingbirds prefer sucrose to the monosacharides glucose or fructose. Knowing this, First Nature Nectar uses the finest food-grade sucrose and not less effective invert sugars found in other products. Not only is First Nature Nectar the easiest hummingbird food to use, it’s also the most healthy choice for these colorful visitors.”

Now I don’t doubt the quality of First Nature Nectar’s product and it definitely sounds superior to formulas that use glucose or fructose, which are less nutritious for the hummingbirds. But I now prefer to make my own, and here’s why.

My friend Kimberly saw my photos and alerted me to the fact that red dye may not be safe for hummingbirds. I did some research and it seems that while the issue is not fully resolved, there is enough convincing evidence that it should be avoided. Testing of the red dye (FDA #40) has shown no conclusive detrimental effect on human health, although it is banned in several European countries anyway. But hummingbirds are tiny creatures and they consume vast quantities of nectar, so the concentrations of red dye in the amounts they consume is quite large. I figure why give it to them if they don’t need it.

Ooh, a second hummingbird just flew in and was chased away by the first! … Sorry, I’m easily distracted …

My friend suggested that I make my own syrup by mixing one part white table sugar to four parts water. She suggested using boiling water to dissolve the sugar and cautioned against using hot tap water because of the possible bacterial content. Well, that seems awfully simple, right? Honestly, part me felt that I should trust the experts who made the syrup and I worried that white table sugar might be the wrong sort of sugar to mimic flower nectar. I told her that I’d heard sucrose was the best food for hummingbirds.

Silly me. Turns out, sucrose is the scientific term for white table sugar. So essentially I have been paying to buy a syrup made of table sugar but with the additives of potassium sorbate as a preservative and red food dye. If you Google this topic, you’ll find hundreds of helpful links – and not one suggests formula is really better.

The red dye is there to attract the hummingbirds, but my friend pointed out that the red flowers on the feeder attract them anyway. The fact that I bought a metal feeder also means that the lid and base are a nice reddish copper colour.


Since I switched to home-made syrup a week ago, the hummingbirds have been coming just as often, if not more often than before. I’m glad that I’m now feeding exactly them what they need – simple-carbohydrates to fuel their bug-hunting expeditions – without preservatives or dyes. And since one cup of sugar makes enough syrup to fill the feeder several times (I’m storing the excess in a closed container in the fridge), it’s likely that I’ll be saving money!

For all the talk of monosaccharides or sucrose, glucose and fructose on the label of the shop-bought syrup, the formula really is just sugar and water. Hold the dye.

Photo credits: Images are by the author Caitlin Fitzsimmons and used here with permission. All rights reserved.