Aug 18, 2015 | Featured Web Article

Birdbath Cleaning

An American redstart takes a dip in Julie Zickefoose's backyard bird bath.
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Keep your birdbath clean. It's a simple adage, oft repeated, but there are reasons to be scrupulous that go beyond hygiene and aesthetics. Of course, the birds' health comes first. If we're going to provide water, we owe it to them to give the bath a good scrubbing when droppings and algae foul the water. Bird droppings contain nitrogen, which is algae fuel, so the quicker we get rid of them, the cleaner our bath will stay.

I'm often asked how to clean a birdbath. People have heard that a drop of bleach in the water will prevent algae growth. Well, maybe. Thanks probably to my German heritage, I'm more of a scorched-earth practitioner. The Bird Spa, a birdbath with a recirculating fountain, gets slimy every three days in summer. I drain the reservoir and bowl and sprinkle Comet sink cleanser liberally over the bowl, letting it sit for a moment while I clean and refill the eight-gallon lower reservoir. I then use a stiff scrub brush, going over every surface twice, and rinse the bowl thoroughly before reassembling the spa and refilling the reservoir. Yes, I do this every three days. It's a lot of work, and I've yet to see a show of hands from volunteers when I announce—rhetorically, of course—that the Bird Spa is slimy again.

I like things to be clean. But I do it for the birds. This may sound like a scene from Snow White, but when I march into the yard with my Comet and scrub brush, and move to uncoil the nearby hose, a little cheer rises up from the goldfinches who mob the bath. Cardinals stand at attention. Bluebirds call softly and fly closer. Titmice high-five each other. Two by two, birds stack up in the branches of the birches, which lean gracefully around the Bird Spa. Their twittering sounds joyful, anticipatory as they watch me at my labors. I'll look up, talk to them, and laugh. And when I've rinsed the bowl one last time and restarted the burbling fountain, sending clean water splashing, they don't hesitate. Before I make it to the front door, the spa is ringed with birds that are jostling to be the first to bathe. I retreat to the studio, camera at the ready, because the best birds come to a clean bath. So keep your birdbath clean, for the birds and for you.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest. Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe today »

About Julie Zickefoose

Writer and nature artist Julie Zickefoose blogs at juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018