As spring approaches, we're restocking the bird-feeder and filling up the bird bath in preparation for the return of our favorite garden creatures.
We draw hummingbirds to our yards a little differently than we do other birds - although their blurry wings insinuate endless supplies of energy, hummers love to sip on "nectar" (glorified sugar water!) for a quick boost. Some homeowners turn to store-bought nectars formulated with red dye, thinking that the red acts as a visual marker for the birds.
Some animal activists, however, are speaking out against those formulas, claiming that the red dye is harmful to hummingbirds. No single ailment is cited, but allegedly, the dye is affiliated with beak and liver tumors, weak eggshells, and kidney and liver complications. To combat this, Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue, based in Tennessee, recently posted a warning on their Facebook page: "Please do NOT use red hummingbird nectar! I'm getting so many hummers who can't fly because they are very sick and ALL are urinating red dyes."
In an update, Happinest confirmed that just 24 hours after intake, two of their six rescued hummingbirds passed away, while the other four were in recovery.
That post has made its rounds on Facebook - it's been shared over 100,000 times since October 2016 - and many commenters, previously unaware of the red dyes supposed effects, have supported Happinest's message and pledged to stop filling their feeders with red nectar. And Happinest isn't the only organization spreading awareness - Sheri Williamson, the director of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, also maligned the red dye: "The bottom line is that 'instant nectar' products containing artificial coloring are at best a waste of your hard-earned money and at worst a source of disease, suffering, and premature death in hummingbirds," she wrote in her book.
Evidence for that claim, however, hasn't yet been substantiated in a study setting. "We're unaware of any definitive study either linking the colorant to a particular illness in hummingbirds or demonstrating it to be harmless," reported Snopes.
Without a study to confirm the red dye nectar's safety (or lack thereof), the evidence we have is purely anecdotal. As to why we'd have qualms without hard, cold facts, the suspicion surrounding the red dye nectar may have been fueled by the FDA's banning of Red Dye #2 in 1976 and Red Dye #3 in 1990 - red dye's historical reputation could be influencing opinions of the food colorant's modern uses.
Regardless, if you're feeling uneasy (no one wants to put these little guys at risk!), there's a DIY fix to tide us over until science catches up. "Boil your own sugar water," Happinest advised on their Facebook page. "Four parts water, one part sugar."
Pour your homemade nectar into a red feeder to attract the birds safely and be sure to scrub or thoroughly sterilize your feeder with hot water each time you restock - that's all it takes to turn your home garden into a hummingbird oasis.
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