I can bet with pretty good accuracy that most people are not cleaning their bird feeders correctly. It’s easy to think that the rain or a quick rinse with a hose will sufficiently wash and sanitize your feeders and birdbaths. It was only when I began to do serious research that I learned that dirty bird feeding stations are hotbeds of disease which can seriously impact our feathered friends – and sometimes humans and their pets, too.
Our bird feeding stations and water sources are places where birds gather. Some in great numbers. Those groups create the mechanisms for the spread of disease. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, common illnesses picked up at feeders and sometimes contaminated water includes House Finch Eye Disease, Avian Pox, and Salmonellosis. In May 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 29 people in 12 U.S. States were sickened and 14 hospitalized in 2021 by Salmonella originating from dirty bird feeders. The summer of 2021 also saw a mystery illness sweep through several Mid-Atlantic states killing mostly young songbirds and leading to a temporary ban on bird feeding. Making sure your bird feeders and water sources are regularly cleaned with a 10% bleach solution is key to helping mitigate the spread. Other practices like eliminating seed waste on the ground, cleaning rails, banisters, or other surfaces where birds gather; purchasing feeders with easy-to-clean designs; and remembering to maintain your birdbaths frequently will make a huge difference to the health of your birding eco-system.
1. Clean Bird Feeders Regularly
Regularly cleaning your bird feeders is an often neglected and essential housekeeping chore of every responsible backyard birder. Put a note on your calendar. Set up a reminder on your cell phone. You should be cleaning your feeders at least every two weeks or weekly if your feeding areas get a lot of traffic.
Ramp up your cleaning schedule when the weather is hot and damp, conditions that could lead to mold buildup.
2. Bleach is Boss
To effectively rid your feeders of the pesky collection of germs, bacteria, and deadly mold, bleach is the top choice of responsible backyard birders. Bleach does a better job of disinfecting feeders than other types of cleaners, including plain soap or vinegar soaks.
Bleach can be smelly, and some folks worry about its toxicity. But when you dilute to the 10% bleach solution recommendation (one part bleach to nine parts water), you’re creating a cleaning powerhouse that will eliminate the dangerous germs that may cause illness.
3. Avoid “Natural” Cleaners
We worry about our impact on the environment with good reason. Caustic cleaners can be dangerous to ourselves and the earth. But when it comes to keeping diseases away from humans, domesticated animals, and our wild animal friends, you must take a scientific approach to cleaning. If you’re using an alternative cleaner other than the dilute bleach solution recommended by experts, take a good look at the label first to ensure it has suitable disinfecting qualities.
You don’t want to only clean and sanitize your feeder. You also want to disinfect it by destroying germ-causing pathogens that cause disease.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a disinfectant as a solution able to kill 99.9 percent of disease-causing bacteria and viruses. So does vinegar measure up as an effective birdfeeder cleaner?
Many of the germs on bird feeders would resist just a vinegar soak – even an extended one. So it’s best to go with the 10% bleach solution recommended by most informed birding experts.
Lindy’s Cleaning Suggestions:
4. Get in the Nooks & Crannies
Taking apart your feeders and removing any seed, mold, or material residue is really important in guaranteeing your feeder is fresh and ready for new birdseed. Moldy birdseed can sicken and kill birds. Fecal matter residue can spread illness not only to other birds but to humans and their pets.
Take the time to carefully clean anything stuck on the inside or outside of your feeder. Brushes like these can help to get into difficult-to-reach spaces.
5. Your Ground Game Counts
Seed hulls and discarded seeds under your feeders can result in a moldy mess that may sicken and kill backyard birds and other outdoor creatures. Accumulated ground waste can also attract unwanted furry friends like mice and rats. The ground will not magically absorb all of your seed waste. Make sure you are regularly sweeping up and discarding fallen seeds on your decks and patios. Get under the deck space, too, to remove the seeds that may have fallen through the deck slats. You will be surprised at how quickly waste can accumulate.
Give a monthly to bi-weekly raking around ground feeders and discard seed residue in the trash. The jury is out on whether you should compost seed waste and, if so, just how much. I’ve seen warnings against it, especially sunflower seed hulls, as they are allopathic and may inhibit competing plants in the same area.
Some folks use sunflower hulls as mulch as their allopathic qualities can reduce weeds, but I’m a bit wary of this due to the propensity of seed waste to become moldy. You will easily find competing opinions on this online, and as one smart gardening blogger pointed out, “This is all fairly new science, and we don’t have many answers.”
A clever product I’ve seen on Amazon with great reviews is a hull digester spray. It gets high marks for helping dissolve seed waste and greatly reduces bird seedlings sprouting under bird feeders. You attach it to your hose and spray areas where birdseed accumulates.
6. Get to those Gathering Places
Bird waste on your decks, patio, railings, window sills, and outdoor furniture can spread illness to humans, pets, and other wild birds. Make sure you’re regularly cleaning and disinfecting these areas and removing any accumulated bird poop. I use a great product called Poop-Off that helps loosen and whisk away any stubborn waste stains.
7. Remember Your Bird Baths
Water sources for birds year-round help them survive. Making sure there is always clean water for your birds year-round is an important part of being a responsible backyard birder. Clean your bird baths weekly and even more frequently during high-traffic days in the summer. Always wear gloves and use a quality cleaning brush to give your baths a good scrub.
While there are enzyme-based birdbath cleaners on the market, their ratings are mixed. A good scrub brush, a little elbow grease, and the 10% bleach solution is really your best bet for a good disinfecting cleansing.
8. Help the Hummingbirds
If you have hummingbird feeders, cleaning should occur every two to three days, depending upon how busy your feeders are and the daily temperatures. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, sugar water can spoil and become moldy in two days or less when temperatures reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. Check to make sure your hummingbird solution isn’t cloudy. That’s a danger sign indicating spoilage.
If your feeder has any black patches, that could indicate a dangerous mold buildup. Get right in there and clean out that feeder.
Small brushes like these can really help.
9. Buy Better Bird Feeders
Take your time and do your research when you’re considering purchasing a new bird feeder. Avoid wooden models or those that cannot be easily taken apart to clean and maintain. Make sure the tops and bottoms flip off, and there aren’t spaces within the design that can accumulate seed waste that will become rancid or moldy.
Try to find feeders made with sustainable materials, like recycled or recyclable plastics.
Do your homework and take the time to read the product reviews to learn as much as you can about the bird feeder you’re going to buy.
They’re durable, made-in-America, and a great value. Check out their options here.
P.S.: What tricks and tools do you use to keep your bird feeding areas healthy and clean?
Have an idea you’d like to share? Tell me more at [email protected].
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