Being a host to your backyard birds is very rewarding but please be aware it’s also a big responsibility and you MUST clean your wild bird feeders. Regularly. Avoiding dirty bird feeders is absolutely crucial.
Feeding wild birds is not a “set it & forget it” kind of activity. In fact, this type of approach can result in dirty bird feeders and wild birds becoming ill or even dying. Worse yet, you or a family member could get sick.
Before you put out your first bird feeder or another pour of birdseed, learn why it’s so important to be a responsible backyard birding host who regularly cleans their bird feeders and birdbaths. To illustrate the importance of cleaning bird feeders I uncovered the 4 most important problems backyard birders face and what to do about them (Spoiler Alert: It involves cleaning your bird feeders and birdbaths).
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This information is for you whether you’re new to backyard birding or are a seasoned host in need of a refresher.
I consulted with online wild bird experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to create a list of best practices we can follow to avoid these problems and put it all into a cool downloadable document.
Want to cut to the chase and just download the Be a Responsible Backyard Birder PDF? Here you go:
- Why Cleaning Your Bird Feeders is Such a Big Deal
- 4 Problems Backyard Birders Need to be Aware Of
- Next Steps
Why Cleaning Your Bird Feeders is Such a Big Deal
Out in the wild, birds know what areas are abundant with seasonal food and fresh, clean water. When wild birds come to your feeding stations they are dependent on you to ensure the food and water are safe. All 4 problems we’ll discuss are related to health safety.
4 Problems Backyard Birders Need to be Aware Of
The 4 problems to be aware of when hosting backyard birds are:
- Wild birds can get sick from wet, old, moldy seed
- Wild birds can get sick from homemade nectar (sugar water)
- Wild birds can get sick from other sick birds
- Humans and pets can get sick from sick birds
Now that we know the problems, what should we do about them? Keep reading and you’ll learn why these are problems, their solutions, and preventive measures for each.
Problem #1: Wild birds can get sick from wet, old, or moldy seed
Like many human foods, bird food can and does go bad. Birdseed that is poorly stored and/or exposed to prolonged and extreme heat can get moldy, go bad, and cause birds to get sick.
Suet, and other suet-based foods, go rancid when exposed to prolonged or extreme heat and can also make birds sick.
Solution: Prevent bird food from going bad.
- Dispose of wet, old, or moldy birdseed. Bird seed my be completely dry.
- During the summer months only fill your wild bird feeders part of the way since natural food is abundant (and preferred) during this time.
- Add a cover over open feeders to protect the seed from getting wet.
- Provide ground-feeding birds with a ground-style feeder instead of tossing seeds on the ground for them. Also, only provide one day’s worth of seed.
- Clean up/toss seed that falls from the feeders to the ground so it doesn’t have a chance to mold. Either rake or vacuum up the seed and dispose of it. (I use the Craftsman 2.5 Gallon Shop-Vac to vacuum up the seed).
- Keep stored seed in a tightly sealed container to keep seed dry and disease-carrying rodents out. Metal garbage cans are ideal as they have tight-fitting lids and rodents can’t chew through them like they can with plastic containers. I use the Behrens 6 Gallon Steel Can. I also place the birdseed in a giant Ziploc bag then place the ziploc inside the steel can, to keep the birdseed fresh longer.
- Avoid offering suet during summer – especially during extreme heat.
Problem #2: Wild birds can get sick from homemade nectar (sugar water)
You can attract hummingbirds and other nectar-loving birds with a hummingbird feeder filled with homemade nectar, or sugar water. Homemade nectar is a combination of water and refined white sugar. Avoid red dye – it’s not needed and could be unhealthy for birds.
Since sugar is a catalyst for bacteria and molds, it’s essential you take care when making sugar water for the birds and keeping it fresh. Birds also introduce bacteria with their tongues when sipping the liquid from the hummingbird feeder (according to Sciencing). Heat is another element that increases the speed of bacteria and mold growth. The takeaway here is bacteria growth in sugar water is inevitable so limiting and slowing the growth is the goal.
Hint: Cloudy liquid indicates bacteria growth.
Solution: Limit and slow the speed of bacteria and mold growth in the sugar water.
- Properly prepare the sugar water. The National Audubon Society recommends keeping your sugar water recipe to a 1:4 sugar to water ratio (1/4 cup refined white sugar + 1 c. water). Higher sugar content may attract more hummingbirds but speeds up the growth of bacteria and mold. They further recommend boiling the sugar water, and cooling before filling the feeder.
- Never use other types of sweeteners (honey, brown sugar, molasses, etc). They can gum up the hummingbirds’ tongues resulting in death by starvation.
- Hang the hummingbird feeder in the shade to slow the growth of bacteria and mold.
- Clean your hummingbird feeder each time you replace the sugar water.
- Replace sugar water weekly when temps are 70°F or below.
- Replace sugar water every other day when temps are above 70°F.
- Replace sugar water immediately when it’s cloudy.
How to Clean Hummingbird Feeders
Supplies: Disposable vinyl gloves, 2 scrub brushes, tiny bottle brush vinegar
- Wearing gloves, scrub bird droppings and dirt off the hummingbird feeder with a brush designated for this purpose.
- Disassemble hummingbird feeder.
- Clean hummingbird feeder with boiling hot water and a weak vinegar solution (i.e. 3 cups of water + 1/4 c. vinegar) scrubbing all parts and pieces. Pay attention to the feeding ports as there will likely be a buildup of mold. A tiny bottle brush is helpful to thoroughly clean them.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology advises avoiding dish soaps, which can leave harmful residue.
- Rinse vinegar solution off the feeder and feeding ports. Then rinse again. One more time for good measure.
- Remove and throw away gloves.
- Fill the feeder with fresh sugar water.
Problem #3: Wild birds can get sick from other sick birds
It’s common to attract many birds to your feeding stations. This congregation of feathered friends is exciting but is also the ideal environment for diseases such as House Finch Eye Disease, Avian Pox, or Salmonellosis to spread.
Solution: Clean your wild bird feeders and baths regularly to avoid the spread of illness.
- Replace birdbath water every day.
- Consider adding another feeder station to disperse the concentration of birds.
- Clean bird feeders and birdbaths regularly (and allow to dry completely before refilling) to avoid spreading illness. The CDC recommends cleaning your feeders and baths every other week. Clean more often if you see a buildup of bird poop or other visible debris.
How to Clean Seed Bird Feeders and Birdbaths
Supplies: Disposable vinyl gloves, 2 scrub brushes, dish soap, bleach
- Wearing gloves, scrub bird droppings and dirt off the feeders and baths with a brush designated for this purpose.
- Disassemble bird feeders.
- Scrub feeders and baths with dish soap and water with a brush designated for this purpose.
- Soak feeders and baths in a 1:9 water & bleach solution for 10 or more minutes (e.g. 1 cup bleach with 9 cups water).
- Rinse the bleach solution off and rinse again. One more time for good measure.
- Remove and throw away gloves.
- Allow the bird feeders and birdbaths to air dry completely before filling again.
Pro Tip: Buy bird feeders that are easy to clean. Specifically, one that easily disassembles and is non-porous so it dries faster. Wooden feeders are a challenge because they are porous and take days if not weeks to dry completely.
Problem #4: Humans and pets can get sick from sick birds
According to the University of Florida, bird-carrying diseases rarely transfer to humans. Yet, a recent Salmonella outbreak causing many people to get sick did originate from wild birds. Some people were even hospitalized. This is reason enough to raise awareness of this issue.
Solution: Wild birds are wild animals and we should treat them as such.
- Never touch wild birds with your bare hands. Use gloves if it’s necessary to touch one (e.g. when disposing of a dead bird).
- Wash hands with soap & water after handling bird feeders, birdbaths, or your bird cleaning supplies.
- Keep pets away from bird feeding stations.
Make it simple. Download my Be a Responsible Backyard Birder PDF hang it on your fridge. You’ll have the cleaning schedule, cleaning instructions, and homemade nectar recipe always available!
Commit to being a responsible backyard birding host by setting up a plan to regularly clean wild bird feeders and birdbaths. Be prepared!
- Download and print the Be a Responsible Backyard Birder PDF then hang on your fridge.
- Buy essential supplies to have available.
- Metal can with a tight-fitting lid to store birdseed in.
- Cleaning supplies for bird feeders and birdbaths:
- Disposable vinyl gloves
- 2 scrub brushes
- Dish soap
- Cleaning supplies for nectar feeders:
- Disposable vinyl gloves
- 2 scrub brushes
- Rake or vacuum to clean up excess seed under feeders.
- Add the reminders to your calendar.
- Daily: Replace birdbath water.
- Weekly: Clean nectar feeder.
- If temperatures have been 70°F or above clean the nectar feeder every other day.
- If the sugar water is cloudy clean the nectar feeder immediately.
- Every 2 weeks: Clean seed feeders and birdbaths. More often if you see poop and debris build-up.
- Share this article with your neighbors.
Congratulations! You now have the information you need to be a responsible backyard birding host. Make a commitment to follow these recommended practices and you will have done everything you can to keep everyone safe.
(2021). Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Wild Songbirds. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
(2018). Preventing disease: What’s the best way to clean your bird feeders?. Project FeederWatch.
Rogers, Theda K. (2019). Why Does Sugar Water Made for Hummingbirds Turn Cloudy?. Sciencing.
009). Should I Take My Feeder Down When The Weather Starts To Warm Up? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
017). Hummingbird Feeding FAQs. National Audubon Society.