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 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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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021