Along with good quality birdseed, it is equally important to clean bird feeders on a regular basis to prevent the spread of disease and make the feeders welcoming to wild birds.
For tips on feeding, see The Complete Guide to Birdseed showing what birds need and how you can avoid wasted fillers.
How to Clean a Bird Feeder
There are two parts to cleaning a bird feeder: washing and disinfecting. You need to do both to help prevent the spread of disease.
- I use an old baby bathtub to wash my large, squirrel-proof tube-style feeders. Whatever you choose, be sure the entire feeder is submersed.
- Wooden bird feeders are not recommended because it is difficult or impossible to truly disinfect porous wood.
- Always wear gloves when handling and washing feeders.
1Take Apart the Feeder
Take the feeder apart and discard any leftover seed or other debris. Never reuse birdseed.
If needed, soak the feeder parts in warm water for at least 20 minutes to dislodge any gunk.
3Scrub in Soapy Water
Wash and scrub all parts in hot water with a mild, unscented dish soap.
- With dishwashing gloves on, use scrubbers, old toothbrushes, and pipe cleaners as needed to reach every part.
- Tube bird feeders may require extra long bottle brushes. There are several types on Amazon. I found mine at a dollar store.
- Keep in mind that soap is for cleanliness but the feeder is not disinfected until you do step 4.
- After cleaning, rinse thoroughly.
Disinfect everything in a clean bucket with a bleach solution.
Bleach Solution for Disinfecting
The CDC lists this ratio:
1/3 cup bleach per gallon of water
4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water
- The bleach should not be past its expiry date and should be listed as suitable for surfaces (not whitening clothes).
- Read the bleach product label for specific instructions. Be sure it is appropriate for the surface type.
- Household bleaches may be 5 or 10% sodium hyperchlorite.
- A bleach solution is effective for up to 24 hours.
- Note that vinegar does not have the same disinfecting properties and is not a recommended substitute.
- Every part of the item you are disinfecting must be continuously exposed to the bleach solution for a minimum of one minute.
- Never mix bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
5Rinse Thoroughly and Dry
Rinse everything in clean water and dry thoroughly or leave to dry before using feeder.
Bird Feeder Basics
If you are like me, you use bird feeders to attract and feed a variety of wild birds. And, while they benefit from this supplemental food supply, it is most important that we managed the feeders properly to avoid causing harm.
Bird feeders are busy, communal feeding stations and that means each bird is exposed to whatever the previous visitors left behind—feed, hulls, droppings, and sometimes diseases. It’s an unnatural setting that encourage multiple species to share resources they would never otherwise exchange.
The best preventative step is to choose good quality feeders that are safe, protect the birdseed from the elements, and easy to clean.
The other task is to keep the feeders clean and disinfected on a regular basis. The busier the feeders, the more often you’ll need to do this.
If routine maintenance (weekly and sometimes daily) is not possible, it is much better to take your feeders down than risk causing harm. The birds will do fine without your offerings and everyone will be better off.
Attracting Wild Birds to Your Garden
- Avoid the use of any products toxic to birds and their food sources including caterpillars.
- Grow plants, trees and shrubs for habitat and be messy: dead and decaying things nourish life.
- Keep pets out of your garden.
- Choose plants that provide food, nectar, or habitat for other living things.
- Birdhouses: Use as decoration only.
- Nesting Boxes: Choose species-specific designs.
- Bird Feed: Provide nutritious food.
- Bird Feeders: Clean frequently. Remove feeders immediately if you notice any sign of disease or problems like salmonella, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, or avian pox are reported in your area.
TIP: Use a motion-sensitive wildlife camera in your garden to see what goes on when you’re not there.
Frequently Asked Questions
1Why do we need to clean bird feeders?
Clean feeders are more attractive to birds and help prevent the spread of disease. Also, while we say ‘clean’ the feeder, we really have to both clean and disinfect them.
Bird feeders are busy meeting places, not to socialize but for a variety of bird species to enjoy delicious, nutritious bird seed and other treats.
In a natural setting, you would never see so many species congregate in one location, but they will at the bird feeders we provide.
If you’ve ever watched birds eat, they often break seeds open with their beaks, and eat the seeds inside while spitting out the hulls. This, plus normal elimination (droppings) and incidental sharing of any diseases makes it the kindergarten of the bird world.
And, if that’s not enough, all those hulls and other debris can harbor mold, fungi, mildew, and countless other undesirable things.
That’s a problem on the feeders and the mess that accumulates on the ground is another concern. Besides the damage to your lawn and garden beds, rats, snakes, mice, and others may come by to dine on the debris and stalk the birds.
If I haven’t already turned you off having bird feeders (oops), keep reading to see how to properly clean and maintain bird feeders for a healthy bird-filled garden.
2How often should I clean my bird feeders?
For birdseed feeders, there is not fixed rule because it depends on how active your feeders are and the weather conditions.
Every two weeks may be fine in mild, dry weather with no signs of bird disease.
But, in a rainy season with lots of bird activity, daily or every few days may be warranted.
I have several extra feeders so I can always keep fresh ones in the garden and wash and disinfect the others in batches when I have time.
3How often should I clean hummingbird feeders?
Hummingbird feeders offer an extra challenge because we feel them with sugar water (recipe here) that does not last long before it becomes moldy.
The hotter the weather, the more often you need to clean and disinfect the feeder and replace the sugar water.
I find sugar water lasts a few days maximum in moderate weather conditions (e.g. 70°F / 21°C) and may turn cloudy or moldy in one afternoon when temperatures climb into the 80s or higher.
If it’s super hot out (90s+), I just take the feeders down because the nectar goes bad so quickly.
Hummingbirds have many food sources with insects as their main course, so they are fine with or without our offerings.
This has information on how to choose a good hummingbird feeder and the correct recipe for making nectar.
4How do I clean a bird bath?
We go through the same process for birdbaths:
- Remove any debris.
- Wash in warm, soapy water.
- Scrub away any gunk.
- Disinfect in bleach solution (use ratio listed above).
- Rinse and dry thoroughly.
- Refill birdbath with fresh, clean water.
TIP: Never put more than one inch of water in bird baths: birds can drown! You can find more tips on bird bath safety here.
5Which feeders are better: plastic, metal, or wood?
- The best feeders are made from (ideally) recycled plastics or metal.
- Glass and glazed ceramic feeders are another option, although they can be breakable.
- Wood is not recommended because it is porous and cannot be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
Choose feeders designed for specific bird species.
Here’s some examples:
- Narrow tube feeders suit goldfinches eating nyger seed.
- Larger squirrel-proof tube feeders are good for birds that enjoy black-oil sunflower seeds.
- Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles drink from nectar feeders.
Avoid open or table-style feeders that expose seed to the elements.
Before buying, check that a feeder can be completely dissembled (if it has different parts) and ensure that you could scrub every part of it. Some feeders are impossible to clean!
Related: How to Choose a Bird Feeder
6I’m seeing sick birds at my feeders. What should I do?
Step one is to remove your feeders and any artificial water sources including bird baths immediately.
Check local authorities to see if there are other reports of bird illnesses and if you should report yours.
Some common illnesses include:
- Avian Pox (two types affect many different bird species)
- Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis (House Finch eye disease)
- Salmonellosis – birds may appear sickly with swollen eyelids and low energy.
- Trichomononsis (also commonly known as trichomoniasis, canker, or frounce) – Trichomonas gallinae – parasite of the upper digestive tract
- United States: National Wildlife Health Center
- Canada: Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre
- List of Canadian Wildlife Rehabilitators
- List of American Wildlife Rehabilitators
Also check local Facebook groups for suggestions.
Maintaining a Healthy Bird Feeding Space
- Choose bird feeders that are durable, non-porous (not wood), and easy to clean.
- Consider the entire feeding environment: are there safe places to perch and hide?
- Choose good quality bird seed and avoid filler products that go to waste. Also, consider how the seed is grown: some have pesticide and other chemical residues.
- Provide small quantities of birdseed and replenish it often. This will prevent spoiling and waste.
- Avoid open or table-style feeders: choose styles that enclose the seed and protect it from the elements.
- Clean and disinfect your feeders regularly. Every two weeks during cooler, low-activity times, more often when busier.
- Remove your feeders if you notice ill or ailing birds.
- Routinely clean up the ground around the feeders, removing old seed, hulls, and waste. It is debated whether it is safe to put this waste in your compost pile.
- If feeders get crowded or start battles, consider having multiple stations as far apart as possible, with each suited to different bird groups.
- Watch for predators and take preventative measures. If cats or birds of prey are winning, maybe the feeders are not the best idea.
The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 130(1):313-320: The effectiveness of bird feeder cleaning methods with and without debris
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛