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Cape Bretoners' love for hummingbirds is “clear”

The hummingbirds are back and hungry after a long flight here. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are eastern North America's sole breeding hummingbird. They are attracted by the colour of the feeder, not the nectar, so don’t buy the potentially dangerous commercial red stuff. As you can see from the photo, clear nectar works just fine.

May 15, 2024

-by Shelly Haill
    Everyone loves hummingbirds. But, judging by how often the question “Have you seen any hummingbirds yet?” has been overheard in the past few weeks (in the grocery store, while filling up at the gas station, on “Information Morning”), Cape Bretoners might just love them a little more than most.    

    Another related question heard frequently over the past few weeks is “Have you put your feeders out yet?” And that brings us to the question at the heart of this article: What exactly is that red coloured nectar that you can buy in stores and is it bad for hummingbirds?
    Like most things one tries to find an answer to these days, both online and in the real world, it depends who you ask. Also, there’s the short “simple” answer and the long and often confusing answer that a lot of people don’t have time for (TLDR, as the kids say, which stands for: Too long, didn’t read).
    The short answer is: Do not use red-dye solution or add red food colouring in your hummingbird feeders. First of all, hummingbirds do not need a coloured solution to find your feeder, least of all the petroleum-based dyes found in liquid food colouring and commercial “instant nectar” products. Red nectars contain a synthetic dye, known as Red Dye #40 (which goes by other names, including Allura Red AC, and adds to the confusion around the question whether it’s banned or not). Although this dye is approved by the FDA in the United States, there is enough uncertainty about the safety of Red Dye #40 and its impacts on human health that, “In Europe, Allura Red AC is not recommended for consumption by children. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria,” according to the website (which has a plethora of transparent information, including the statement that Red Dye #40 is made from “coal tar”). Health Canada allows Red Dye # 40, but the amounts allowed and the foods in which it can be used are carefully defined.   
    The long answer is, well, even longer; and murkier. So long and murky, in fact, one is almost sorry they asked. But here goes: According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “There is no research that proves red dye is safe for hummingbirds, and very compelling anecdotal information from experienced, licensed rehabbers that hummers who have been fed dyed food have higher mortality and suffer tumours of the bill and liver.”
    You may be thinking, “There’s no research proving it’s either safe or harmful to hummingbirds? Why not?” Welcome to the murk.
    Sheri L. Williamson is a naturalist, ornithologist, conservationist, writer, speaker, artist, and author of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America in the Peterson Field Guide Series. She is frequently asked if scientific studies have been conducted to determine the effects of these chemicals on hummingbirds, to which she answers, “Some people are surprised to learn that the answer is an emphatic “No.” Despite oft-repeated (and oft-debunked) urban legends that the San Diego Zoo, Audubon Society, or some other trustworthy source tested red dye on hummingbirds and found one or more specific effects (liver damage, kidney damage, cancer, tumours, birth defects, weakened eggshells, or, in some versions of the story, no harm at all), there is no evidence that any such testing has ever been conducted on hummingbirds by anyone, anywhere.”
    “Why not?” you might be asking. Why not test it and if it is harmful, get it off the shelves? It turns out there is a very long list of complicated reasons that have to do with laws around migratory bird regulations and the sheer difficulty around the kind of research, and permits, that would be required. Two “short” examples of those difficulties are (specific to US laws and research):
– Hummingbirds, like most wild birds, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and various state laws, and animal research is subject to its own set of federal, state, and institutional regulations; so, the first hurdle would be to get all the necessary permits and permissions to capture wild hummingbirds, confine them at a research facility, and perform lethal testing on them.
– The size and composition of the study population is very important. If the number of birds is too small, the results may not be clear, or critics may dismiss them as not statistically significant. If only one species is tested, critics may argue that the results may not apply to other hummingbirds. If only males are tested, critics may contend that the dye could affect females differently or not at all and therefore have little effect on populations.
    So, it turns out that manufacturers of artificial nectars containing Red Dye #40 are not lying when they say that no proof exists that it is harmful to hummingbirds. But neither is there any research that indicates that red dye is not harmful to hummingbirds. Manufacturers also like to point out that the dyes used are approved for human consumption. That’s true, but as mentioned above, both the FDA and Health Canada set limits for consumption and recommend that people not ingest large quantities of a single dye product. However, when we set up a hummingbird feeder with dyed nectar, this is just what we’re encouraging hummingbirds to do.
    The Oran reached out to Formula A. Inc., which is the Quebec company listed under “Manufactured in Canada” on the label of a bottle of Garden Melody Hummingbird Nectar (from a Dollarama). “Red #40” is listed as one of the ingredients on the bottle, along with preservatives which explains why “no refrigeration required” is listed on the bottle as one of the selling features, (whereas anyone who makes their own hummingbird nectar using simple sugar and water knows you must keep it refrigerated).
    According to the Formula A. Inc., website, it’s a company that manufactures “cosmetic, toiletries, cleaning and sanitizing products for institutional use, as well as a range of various products for general consumers” as well as “antifreeze/coolant and other automotive functional fluids and car appearance products.”
    A chemical company making very important products that us consumers couldn’t live without is one thing. Making petroleum-based “food” to be consumed by a wild animal is something else. The email The Oran received from Formula A. Inc., stated, “Our product is 100 per cent sugar-based product, no synthetic chemicals. We want our birds to survive and live happily. We produce this for families and people to feed birds, and the product is 100 per cent sugar. No synthetic chemicals. And we use Red colour which is used in Tylenol, used in infant medication.”
    The Oran followed up pointing out that, according to the ingredients on the label, the product is not 100 per cent sugar and includes Red #40. We received the following explanation from a different person at the company, seeking to clear up the seemingly incorrect information in the first reply we received: “Our apologies that our website is not up to date. I imagine that you saw the Garden Melody product at Dollarama…this product is clear. Prior to 2024, our nectar was red. For many years, red nectar was the only nectar sold in Canada and red is still sold by many retailers. As a company, we decided last year just to manufacture the clear version. The nectar that we manufacture is no different than any other commercially available nectar sold in Canada – as stated on the label, it’s water, sugar, and a preservative that is safe for hummingbirds.”
    In a follow up email, the company explained that if there are any bottles of “Garden Melody” out there that still contain Red Dye #40, it is old stock as they “haven’t manufactured the red one in the past 12 months.” But many other companies still do.
    The truth is hummingbirds are attracted to the colour of the feeder itself and not the nectar it contains. The proof is the fact that hummingbirds have no difficulty locating feeders containing clear hummingbird food. When you add in the fact that a 4 to 1 ratio of water to plain granulated sugar most closely matches a hummingbird’s natural nectar, and that it can be made for just pennies a gallon versus several dollars for the more “convenient” red stuff, the choice of what to feed hummingbirds is clear, literally.















































































































































































































Oran Dan - The Inverness Oran -

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