Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”

Lucifer Hummingbird female

All of Arizona’s famous feeding stations use plain sugar water to attract avian celebrities such as Lucifer (above, female), Magnificent, White-eared, and Violet-crowned hummingbirds. (photo © Sheri L. Williamson)

Maybe they’re trying to tell you something. Most of the “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products on the market are adulterated with petroleum-based artificial dyes and/or preservatives, so it’s safer if the birds don’t eat them.*

Even products that claim to contain natural coloring aren’t necessarily trustworthy. On a recent visit to one of the big-box pet stores, I encountered three versions of a brand of “instant nectar” touted on the Web as containing “natural red coloring.” The ingredient list showed that the concentrate and one of the two powders contained FD&C Red No. 40, which has been found to cause harm in laboratory animals at dosages substantially lower than a hummingbird would be exposed to by drinking one of these products. The label on the other powder listed beet coloring, which may not be the best choice of natural coloring for hummingbirds for reasons I explained in an earlier post.

* The few “instant nectar” products that don’t contain unnecessary and potentially harmful additives may not hurt the birds, but they’ll put an unnecessary dent in your bank balance. They’re ≥99% sugar priced at five to ten times what you’d pay for white granulated sugar at the grocery store. What you’re really paying for is the colorful, “convenient” package, not a better product. If you’ve got cash to burn, try superfine or caster sugar, which dissolves more quickly in cold water than regular granulated. Organic sugar, “raw” sugar, and “evaporated cane juice” are other pricey alternatives that might seem worth the extra green, but their beige to brown color indicates the presence of iron, which is known to be a potentially deadly problem for hummingbirds. Until we know more about how much supplemental iron hummingbirds can tolerate, they’re not worth the risk.


5 thoughts on “Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”

  1. The other danger to them is people not keeping their feeders clean! So many people put out nectar and leave it out too long which causes mold to form in the feeder.

    • “Instant nectar” products often contain preservatives to slow the growth of molds, yeasts, and bacteria, but hummingbirds would be better off taking their chances with these natural organisms that they’d be likely to encounter when drinking flower nectar, tree sap, or the juices of overripe fruit than drinking feeder solution spiked with additives not found in natural nectar.

  2. Pingback: Search of the Week: “what can I feed hummingbirds to get them protein” | Life, Birds, and Everything

    • The dyes and preservatives in “instant nectar” products are also in many human foods and beverages that you’re probably already eating and drinking. Except for the extra sugar, prepared “instant nectar” is arguably slightly healthier for you than Kool-Aid, because it contains fewer additives.

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