Mar 21, 2016 | Featured Web Article

How—and Why—to Clean Your Bird Feeders

A northern cardinal and a rose-breasted grosbeak enjoy bird seed in a backyard feeder.

Although it is rare—even unheard of—for humans to become sick from handling a bird feeder, there is no doubt that microorganisms flourish on their surface. That's why it's important for you to wash your hands after handling your feeders, including after refilling them. Much more of a threat are illnesses and diseases spread among the birds that visit and share feeders.

Five such diseases can be transmitted to birds at feeders:

  • Salmonellosis, commonly called salmonella, is the most common bird-feeder disease, spread by a bacterium that causes abscesses in the esophagus and crop. Infected birds pass the bacteria in their fecal droppings, and other birds get sick when they ingest contaminated seed. All bird species are susceptible to salmonellosis.
  • Mycoplasmosis is an eye disease caused by a bacterium. House finches are most susceptible, but goldfinches and other feeder birds can be infected, also. Symptoms include swollen, crusty, eyes. Birds eventually go blind, and unable to find food, starve. The bacterium remains infectious for 12 to 24 hours on the surface of feeders.
  • Trichomoniasis is spread by single-celled microscopic parasites, and it affects only pigeons and doves. Infected birds typically develop sores in their mouths and throats and become unable to swallow. The seed or water they drop then contaminates the supply, infecting other pigeons and doves.
  • Mold can cause aspergillosis from a fungus that grows on damp seed and the debris that collects under bird feeders. Birds inhale the spores, and results in bronchitis and pneumonia. It is usually fatal.
  • Avian pox is a virus that causes slow-growing, wartlike growths on birds' feet, legs, faces, and other unfeathered areas. All bird species are susceptible. The virus is spread by ingesting food and water contaminated by sick birds, or through contact with contaminated surfaces, such as bird feeders.

If you are not willing to commit to keeping your bird feeders clean, it is better to take them down and stop feeding the birds. Birds can find food and survive without human help, but they might not survive a contaminated bird feeder.

To keep your feeder birds healthy, and to prevent the spread of disease, follow these steps:

  1. Clean your feeders and birdbaths regularly—at least once a month, and more often during periods of heavy use.
  2. Wait until your feeders are empty, or nearly so, before washing. Do not reuse seed that was in your dirty feeders; it may be invisibly contaminated with disease-carrying microorganisms.
  3. Before washing, scrape out as much gunk and debris as possible and throw it away.
  4. If necessary, use a screwdriver and wrench to disassemble the feeder completely to extract rotting seed from otherwise inaccessible areas of the feeder.
  5. Wash your feeders in a utility tub or a bucket, and not in your kitchen sink.
  6. Use liquid dish soap to remove gunk if necessary, but be sure to rinse extra thoroughly. Note: Dish soap does not disinfect contamination, and is not necessary.
  7. Using a solution of nine-parts water to one part bleach, scrub the feeder with a brush and/or bottle brush, then let it soak in the solution for ten minutes. Rinse well, and let it air dry.

Some bird feeders should not be washed in the dishwasher; they might fall apart. Some bird feeders recommend being washed in the dishwasher, but we would recommend that only in dishwashers with a "sanitize" setting. Also, best not to mix your bird-poopy feeders with your fine china, or even with your everyday drinking glasses and silverware—just like you wouldn't wash dirty diapers in the same laundry with dish towels.

As part of your monthly (or more frequently) bird-feeder cleaning efforts, attend to the ground beneath your feeders. Ground-feeding birds such as doves and pigeons, sparrows, quail, and many other birds forage beneath feeders for spilled seed. If that seed or the hulls are contaminated, disease can spread to birds that have never touched your feeders. Rake up waste hulls and throw them away. Spread a thick layer of wood mulch beneath the feeder. Relocate your feeder at least a few feet away from the previous location several times a year, and plant grass or wildflowers in the previous location. It will already have been well-fertilized!

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • Scrub Jay's are the best!!!
    by Iris Delgado, Thu, 09 May 2019
  • How can I separate nyler seeds from hulls finshes kick out? They toss out so much expensive seed along with the hulls of the seeds they have eaten. How can I separate them so I can return the still whole seeds back into the feeder?
    by Seen From Here, Sat, 04 May 2019
  • We had some cases of what I think was avian trichomonosis here this summer in central NY. Are you hearing anything about that? My understanding is that even the hawks can get it from consuming infected song birds.
    by D.Mac, Sat, 04 May 2019
  • 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