Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: The red dye used in hummingbird nectar is harmful to the birds.
Origins: In the 1970s DDT, a highly effective pesticide then widely in use in the U.S., was believed to be threatening the continuation of a number of bird species. Reports claimed that bald eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons exposed to the chemical laid eggs with abnormally thin shells which broke during incubation and resulted in markedly fewer successful hatchings, so new generations were not surviving to replace earlier ones as older birds died off. Because of this looming extinction threat, DDT was subjected to a domestic ban in 1972. Once the pesticide was removed from the environment, the population levels of the endangered birds returned to near their previous levels. (Later studies indicated that factors other than DDT use were likely responsible for most of the decline.)
Half-remembered fragments of the many news stories about the effects of DDT on those threatened raptors may have contributed to a related widespread conviction regarding hummingbirds — that the red dye commonly added to the nectar used in hummingbird feeders works to thin the shells of their eggs, placing them in similar jeopardy. Or the suspicion could have been fueled by a more general wariness attached to red dyes, especially in the wake of the longstanding controversy over Red
The red dye traditionally added to attract hummers to nectar dispensers may never have been necessary anyway. While it is true hummingbirds are drawn to red, there is more than one way to entice a bird.
According to an entry found in the Audubon Society's FAQ:
Current thinking is that the red dye may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on your feeder is enough to attract them. You can mix your own nectar usingThe Audubon Society's page does not detail the harm it fears dye could potentially cause. We're unaware of any definitive study either linking the colorant to a particular
Rather than take a chance with the little birds' health, many bird fanciers have chosen to omit red dye from the liquid feed they offer their airborne visitors. A mixture of
The feeding of hummingbirds has attracted a second rumor, one of a more sinister nature:
[Collected via e-mail, 2000]We haven't found a news account or other report of any such incident. Moreover, hummingbirds generally draw their sustenance from spiders, flies, gnats, and other insects they eat, not from the sweet nectar they sip. The sugary liquid provides extra energy to the birds, but it's not their primary source of nutrition.
I heard that a man was recently arrested for cruelty to animals after starving a number of humming birds by putting out feeders with nutra-sweet in them.
Some bird lovers fear the presence of their nectar dispensers will tempt the little birds to delay migration, causing coddled hummers to become trapped by the sudden onset of cold weather. Yet they need not so fearful, because the hummingbird's instinct to migrate is too strong to be sidetracked. When it's time to go, they know.
Barbara "bye bye birdie" Mikkelson
Last updated: 29 June 2007
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