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
Wild Bird Safety Note
During outbreaks of the highly pathogenic diseases including avian influenza, it is strongly recommended to remove bird feeders and cease any hand-feeding. This may help reduce transmission rates amongst our wild bird populations.
Ongoing, feeders should be cleaned frequently with a bleach solution and remove any debris from ground around feeders.
There are two parts to cleaning a bird feeder: cleaning and disinfecting. You need to do both to help prevent the spread of disease.
Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces and should be done with water, soap, and scrubbing.
Disinfecting with a bleach solution (see below) is done after cleaning and will kill any remaining germs.
- 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 when disinfecting.
- Wooden bird feeders are not recommended because it is difficult or impossible to truly disinfect porous wood.
- Always wear eye protection, gloves, and a work apron 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 or tub with a bleach solution.
Bleach Solution for Disinfecting
A bleach solution is a combination of household bleach (5%-9% sodium hypochlorite) and room temperature water.
Birding sites commonly recommend a 1:9 or 1:10 bleach to water ratio and soaking for 10 minutes.
- 1 cup bleach and 9 or 10 cups water
The CDC recommends recommends a 1:48 bleach to water ratio for surface disinfection and exposing all parts to the solution for at least 1 minute:
- 1 teaspoon bleach per 1 cup of water or
- 4 teaspoons bleach per quart (4 cups) or
- 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of bleach per gallon (16 cups) of room temperature water.
- Work outside and wear protective gear for eyes, hands, and clothes.
- Disinfecting should take place after completely cleaning and drying the items.
- Only use bleach that is between 5% or 9% sodium hypochlorite and intended for surface disinfecting, not whitening clothes.
- Never mix bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
- A bleach solution becomes less effective after 24 hours.
- Every part of the item you are disinfecting must be continuously exposed to the bleach solution for a minimum of one minute.
5Rinse Thoroughly and Dry
Rinse everything in clean water and dry thoroughly or leave to dry before using feeder.
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why 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.
How 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.
How 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.
This has information on how to choose a good hummingbird feeder and the correct recipe for making nectar.
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 do not require sugar water to survive. Their main diet is insects including spiders and various larvae along with natural nectar from flowering plants.
The most important thing we can do is provide a diverse, natural, pesticide-free habitat so nature can provide what they need.
There is hummingbird migration map here.
How do I clean a birdbath?
We go through the same process for birdbaths:
- Remove any debris.
- Wash in warm, soapy water.
- Scrub away any gunk.
- Disinfect with bleach solution (use ratio listed above).
- Rinse and dry thoroughly.
- Refill birdbath with fresh, clean water.
Safety Tip: Shallow Water Only
Never put more than one inch of water in birdbaths: birds can drown!
Which bird 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. This has tips on choosing bird feeders.
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!
I’m seeing sick birds at my feeders. What should I do?
Step one is to remove your feeders and any artificial water sources including birdbaths immediately. Keep all feeders away for at least six weeks.
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
When is it ok to feed wild birds?
In this article at the Audubon Society, When It’s Okay (Or Not) to Feed Birds, they suggest asking these three questions before feeding wild birds:
- Is this species at risk? If so, do not feed them: they need their natural habitat and food sources to survive and thrive long-term.
- Is the food appropriate and safely provided? Offer bird feed as close to the natural diet as possible is best.
- Is feeding this bird likely to change its behavior in harmful ways? When wild animals change their natural behaviors to focus on human interventions, trouble begins.
- Canada: Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre at www.cwhc-rcsf.ca/index.php
Search for “wildlife rehabilitators” in your area.
Also check local Facebook groups for suggestions.
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 ♛