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Should hummingbird food be clear or red?

Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures. Their tiny size, incredible speed, and ability to hover in midair make them a joy to watch. These energetic birds have captured people’s imagination for centuries. When it comes to feeding hummingbirds, one of the big debates is whether the nectar should be clear or dyed red.

The History of Hummingbird Feeders

Hummingbirds get most of their nutrients from flower nectar and small insects. As more people wanted to attract hummingbirds to their yards, the first commercial hummingbird feeders were invented in the 1950s. These early feeders used a simple sugar and water mixture as “nectar.”

In the 1970s, some companies started adding red dye to the sugar water. The idea was that the red color would attract more hummingbirds. Since hummingbirds are naturally drawn to red flowers, it seemed to make sense that red feeders would get their attention.

This began the debate over whether it’s better to use clear or red liquid in hummingbird feeders that continues today.

Arguments for Clear Hummingbird Nectar

There are several reasons why many experts argue that clear nectar is best for hummingbirds:

  • Clear nectar resembles natural flower nectar. Flower nectar is typically clear or pale yellow.
  • Studies show hummingbirds have good color vision and are attracted to the color red in flowers, not just red objects in general.
  • Artificial dyes and colors are not necessary to attract hummingbirds.
  • The safety of ingesting red dye is questionable.
  • Clear nectar allows you to easily monitor sugar concentration and freshness.
  • Excess red dye can leak and stain feeders and surfaces.

Proponents of clear nectar argue that the most natural approach is the best. Clear nectar closely mimics the true flower nectar that hummingbirds eat in the wild.

Research on Preference for Clear vs. Red

Several studies have tested hummingbird preferences when given a choice between clear and red nectar. The results show some preference for red but also significant use of clear nectar:

Study Results
Vukusic & Srinivasarao, 2007 Hummingbirds showed slight preference for red feeders over clear
Tierney et al., 2013 Hummingbirds fed from red feeders 79% vs. 21% from clear feeders
Smith et al., 2013 No significant preference shown between red and clear feeders

The evidence shows hummingbirds will use clear feeders, even if they have a slight tendency to prefer red ones.

Arguments for Red Hummingbird Nectar

Here are some of the main reasons why red nectar remains popular among many backyard birdwatchers:

  • Red dye attracts more hummingbirds to the feeder.
  • The color gives hummingbirds a visual cue to locate the nectar.
  • Some studies show mild preference for red over clear nectar.
  • Red dye may not be harmful in small doses.

Those in favor of dyed nectar focus on the practical goal of attracting more hummingbirds, even if red is not a natural color. The boost in visibility and attraction seems to outweigh potential downsides for many people.

Is Red Dye Dangerous?

One of the biggest concerns around red-dyed nectar is whether the dye is safe for hummingbirds to ingest. Some claim adverse effects, but the evidence is limited:

Argument Evidence
Red dye toxicity No studies directly demonstrate toxic effects
Behavioral effects One study showed effects on feeding behavior
Effects on chicks No research on impacts on young hummingbirds

Much more research is needed on potential toxicity and dangers from long-term exposure. In the meantime, risks appear low but can’t be ruled out entirely.

Best Practices for Hummingbird Feeders

When it comes to hummingbird nectar, following best practices is key whether you opt for clear or colored liquid:

  • Use refined white sugar only, never honey, artificial sweeteners, etc.
  • Change nectar every 2-3 days to prevent spoilage.
  • Use a proper 4:1 ratio of sugar to water.
  • Avoid leaks, clean constantly to limit mold.
  • Don’t add food coloring other than red dye.
  • Consider switching to clear nectar for part of the year.

Keeping feeders clean and nectar fresh should be the top priority for any hummingbird enthusiast. This helps ensure healthy birds regardless of food color.


The debate over optimal hummingbird nectar color remains unresolved. Clear has the advantage of being more natural while red is associated with higher bird attraction. Either option can be appropriate if maintained diligently.

For those on the fence, alternating between clear and colored nectar may be a good compromise. This provides the benefits of both while limiting potential downsides. With further research, we may one day know definitively what hummingbirds prefer. In the meantime, the most ethical approach seems to be keeping the birds’ best interests in mind.

Regardless of your stance in this debate, we can all agree that feeding hummingbirds is an extremely rewarding experience. Watching these energetic, hovering birds stop by for a snack is a delight. As long as best practices are followed, backyard birdwatchers can provide a safe nectar habitat for hummingbirds to enjoy.