In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here’s a question from our December 2015 issue:
Around the holidays, some stores sell seed that is dyed red and green. Is it safe for birds? — Robin Washington, Tulsa, Oklahoma
I’ve seen artificially colored seeds in wild-bird blends, as well as in hanging seed treats shaped like cutesy Christmas trees, candy canes, and toy nutcrackers. The colors don’t add anything beneficial for the birds. Bird seed is colored only to attract human buyers. Even if we presume that the seeds are colored using food-safe dyes, we really have no way of knowing how the chemicals interact with the many other artificial and natural compounds that birds are exposed to, particularly in urban areas.
Since the dye appears on seed hulls, which birds discard, it is likely that much of it isn’t consumed, yet many species gather up whole seeds in their mouth or throat to eat or hide elsewhere. Other species grasp seeds with their feet to open the hulls with their bills. Seeds and hulls can also accumulate on the ground beneath feeders, where they will be walked on, or where the dyes can leach into the soil. Since undyed seed is so much easier to come by, and because birds find it perfectly suitable, why take a chance on colored seed?
About Julie Craves
Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.
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