The Great Hummingbird Nectar Myth

As I have talked to many people over the years about birdfeeding, I often have to dispell many myths, old-wives tales, and other 1/2 truths.  Hummingbird feeding at red flowerWhere these stories and supposed facts have their origins, is hard to tell most of the time.  But, it’s obvious that once something “gets out there” among the general public and is accepted as fact, it takes a long time to reverse that thinking.

One of those myths is that hummingbird nectar in feeders “must be colored red or the birds won’t be able to find it”.  This is and has always been “a bunch of hogwash” as my dear departed Dad used to say.

This myth probably got its start based on the fact hummingbirds are often seen feeding at a lot of red colored flowers.  Although it’s true that hummingbirds like to feed at red flowers, they also feed at other colored flowers – yellow, orange, pink, and purple.  So, color is not at all critical to them in finding food.  And since flower nectar is basically sugar water anyway and is not dyed red, then color of the nectar in the feeder shouldn’t matter, correct?

That being said, it IS true that the color red can help attract hummingbirds to a new hummingbird feeder since color does help them find flowers.  But, most if not all hummingbird feeders have some red parts on them already.  This is more than enough red for hummingbirds to see the feeder.  Even the small red tip on the end of the small red feeding glass tube found on some feeders is enough to attract them.   And even if the feeder doesn’t have any red, you can tie a red ribbon to the feeder to attract the hummingbirds.   So, having red nectar is NOT necessary.

But, there’s an even better and more important reason not to use red-dyed nectar solutions.  Research has shown that hummingbirds can not digest the red dye and it just passes right through their systems.  With all the bad health effects seen in humans in the past when red dyes were used in food, why risk your hummingbirds’ health by using dyed nectar?

OK, you’re probably thinking if all this is true, then why do I see red-colored hummingbird nectar for sale in stores?   Very good question.  The most easy answer is simply PROFIT.  Companies know people will buy it.  And since it’s basically sugar water, it’s extremely cheap to make and therefore very profitable.   But, I think part of the reason goes back to this false belief that nectar MUST be red to be effective in attracting hummingbirds.

Full disclosure here – I myself DID sell hummingbird nectar (non-dyed only) for years when I owned a birdfeeding specialty store.  However, this was ONLY because some people just had to buy it and would actually get upset with me if I didn’t stock it!  And this was after I told them directly they didn’t need it, it was a waste of their money, and I tried to give them a handout that explained how they could make it themselves (see below).   As they say, “you can lead a horse to water, but…..”

So, I ask everyone who reads this post to join the “Dye-Free Hummingbird Nectar Revolution“.  Save yourself a lot of money by going out and buying an inexpensive 5 pound bag of table sugar, and then find a fruit juice bottle you can clean out and use to store your nectar in.   Unless you live in parts of the west, a 5 pound bag will probably last you most of the season.

EDIT:  There is a new product that came out from Kaytee called ElectroNectar which is a non-dyed liquid product with electrolytes added to it.  The company claims that research shows hummingbirds need additional electrolytes when feeding on sugar water to replenish what their bodies use up in processing the extra water.  I will check into this claim and report back.  But, if you are one who wants to buy a pre-mixed nectar, this may be a good option for you.

And one last very important tip:  make sure to change your hummingbird nectar in the feeder every 3-5 days.  After that it starts to ferment and grow molds that can be harmful to birds.

Hummingbird Nectar Recipe

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology