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Please Don't Use Red Dye

Here, in its entirety, is the standard response (in red type) that Perky-Pet Products' Ron O'Kane sends to people who complain about the P-P hummingbird "food" mix, which contains red dye. Please read it carefully, then read my comments which follow:

Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns about the use of food coloring in our instant nectars for hummingbirds. As you can imagine, this is an issue of some concern to us too! Since we are in the hummingbird business, it would be not only wrong, but also foolish for us to do anything detrimental to the health of hummingbirds. If Perky-Pet were to put a harmful substance in hummingbird food, it would be like Gerber putting poison in baby food.

Rumors about red dye being bad for hummers have been around for many years. Each time that rumor surfaces, we do our best to track it down to see if there is any basis in fact. I am most happy to report that in every instance we've found not only no conclusive evidence of harmful effects of coloring, but in every case have found absolutely NO EVIDENCE AT ALL! At one time, we even offered a $100 reward to the first person who could send us a copy of any legitimate research. We still have our $100! Some liquid red dyes contain propylene glycol, a refined alcohol that is sometimes used as antifreeze. That is why Perky-Pet uses dry, USDA approved dyes and discourages the addition of untested red dyes by our customers to color nectar.

One reincarnation of the rumor had its start in an article that appeared in the February 25, 1990 Day Newspaper of New London, Connecticut. This article quoted a study by the San Diego Zoo which was purported to have discovered that "birds which ingested nectar containing red dye produced baby birds which were blind, deformed or had shells which would not open." Someone forwarded a copy of this article to the headquarters of the Wild Birds Unlimited chain which subsequently quoted the article on the front page "Red Food Coloring - Harmful to Hummers" alert in their monthly newsletter which is mailed to all their customers.

One of our good customers and friend of hummers at this point sent a copy of the Wild Bird newsletter to the general manager of Perky-Pet. Imagine his horror! The first thing he did was to get on the phone to the San Diego Zoo and talk to the Animal Care Manager of Birds, Mr. Wayne Schulenburg, to try and find out about the study. What Mr. Schulenburg told him was that the Zoo had never done such a study, that the whole thing was "totally fabricated."

As you can imagine, we are quite upset at the spread of false information that has an impact on both our reputation as a friend of hummingbirds and our business. We continue to spread the truth, but the truth doesn't have the headline impact of the rumor. In the case of the Wild Birds Unlimited newsletter, the printed retraction in the next issue wasn't page one news.

We have been feeding hummingbirds for decades with our nectars, and have found that we have steadily increasing populations of birds. Perky-Pet nectars have only dyes that have passed strict USDA tests for use in foods. Our concern, like yours, is for the long term health of our friends, the hummingbirds.

Ron O'Kane, BTCM

So, what's wrong with this picture?

Perky-Pet knows that red dye sells hummingbird mix (indeed, they created the market). Otherwise, it would be indistinguishable visually from plain, home-made sugar water, from which P-P would make no money. The profit on this mix must be enormous.

There is certainly nothing wrong with making a profit. However, as the industry leader and primary source of hummingbird information to the public, P-P has an ethical obligation to do no harm to hummingbirds. They are failing in this responsibility. Because of that, I refuse to recommend any of their products. Nor will I recommend Opus, which also sells a red mix. Mixes of any sort are at best a waste of money, and at worst pose a potential health risk to birds.

Mr. O'Kane is correct that there is no definitive research one way or the other. It's important to understand that this means there is also no research that proves red dye is safe for hummingbirds. His claim of "increasing populations of birds" is irrelevant: only the most gullible would believe that red dye is responsible for any such increase, given the myriad other variables involved.

The silliest Perky-Pet product of all is the "strawberry scented" nectar, which they claim is especially attractive to hummingbirds. This is not likely, since there's no evidence that hummingbirds locate their food by smell; like most birds, their sense of smell seems poorly developed. Attractive to humans with too much disposable income, perhaps. Hummers are miniature flycatchers, deriving their nutrition from arthropods (insects and spiders), and sugar is just fuel for chasing bugs.

It is only natural that birdwatchers want "nothing but the best" for their feathered friends, and many are willing to spend good money to provide it. But let's use some common sense.

Here are some facts:

  • Several experienced, licensed wildlife rehabilitators have told me that they see disturbing damage in hummers that were known to use dyed syrup, including tumors of the bill and liver. As far as I know, their observations have not been published in a refereed journal. If you're compulsive about "scientific" proof, you don't have to believe them. But I do.
  • P-P claims that its dye is USDA (actually FDA) approved. It's apparently red dye #40, also known as Allura Red AC, an azo dye made form coal tar. The FDA appoves things that humans eat, and does no testing on the effects of food additives upon wildlife. It is a mistake to assume that hummingbirds are affected by chemicals in the same way as humans; in fact, our physiologies are quite different.
    But what if it were approved? Tylenol is FDA approved, but feed it to your cat and it will die (acetaminophen is highly toxic to cats). Some humans are sufficiently allergic to red dye #40 that mere contact will send them into shock. Further, the FDA recommends that humans do not ingest large quantities of a single dye product, but this is exactly what happens to hummingbirds at feeders with red syrup: a steady diet of one dye.
  • Despite the FDA approval of red dye #40, enough scientific evidence has accumulated that it has been banned in a number of countries. See these links:
  • Red dye is TOTALLY UNNECESSARY to attract hummingbirds. Reports of informal experiments using side by side feeders, one with red syrup and one with plain, suggested that the birds do not like the taste of red dye.
  • Natural flower nectar is clear, not red. Hummingbirds don't look at nectar anyway, they look for flowers of the right shape and color, and nearly all hummingbird feeders are red plastic. For the ones that aren't, tie on some red ribbon or surveyor's tape if the birds need help finding them.
  • The only constituents found in all flower nectars are water and sugar. There are trace amounts of electrolyte salts and other chemicals, but they are different for each plant, they may come from dust and bugs that contaminate the nectar, and there is no proof that hummingbirds use or need them for good health. In any event, none of the hummingbird food mixes seem to make an attempt to duplicate flower nectar accurately.
    I challenge any manufacturer to show that the preservatives and other ingredients in their commercial mixes (except water and sugar) have been scientifically tested for safety as a hummingbird food supplement. I won't, however, insult them by pretending to offer $100.

The bottom line: red dye is unnecessary, and contributes absolutely nothing to the good health of a hummingbird. In fact, its effects on hummingbirds are unproven. It is at best useless. Why take the chance?

Our good stewardship of hummingbirds demands conservatism in how we impact their lives. If you see the logic in my position, let the manufacturers and the stores that sell their products know how you feel.


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