DNR Offers Guidelines to Keep Bird Feeders Clean and Backyard Birds Safe

A bird sipping from a bird feeder.
Jeremy Lwanga / Unsplash

Many South Carolina residents enjoy feeding wild birds. Several bird species commonly visit feeders providing an opportunity for residents to enjoy watching them nearby.

However, S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologists are asking the public to be mindful of proper maintenance of their feeders. Without proper care bird feeders can harm rather than benefit the local bird population. Dirty feeders can harbor spoiled feed, seed hulls, and waste which can become a source of bacteria, mold, and other diseases that can be transmitted between birds.

The risk is greatly reduced when bird feeders are cleaned regularly. Not only will the birds benefit, but so will the resident because clean feeders will likely attract more wild birds. With thoughtful planning and care the public can enjoy healthy and safe backyard birds. Fortunately, bird feeder care is easy just follow these guidelines:

* Keep Feeders Clean: Seed feeders should be thoroughly cleaned at least once per month with one part liquid chlorine bleach to 9 parts hot water. Make enough solution to immerse the feeders. Allow the feeder to soak for 10 minutes to loosen debris. Wear rubber gloves and wash all feeder parts inside and out where birds may perch or waste may collect including feeding ports, perches, lids, platforms, reservoirs, and feeder hooks and poles using a stiff brush. After cleaning, rinse the feeder and all parts for at least 10 seconds in clean water to remove all chemical residue. Allow the feeders to air dry completely, especially wooden feeders, before refilling with seeds. Nectar feeders need special care because of their design.

Nectar feeders should be cleaned each time they are refilled. Change the nectar before it is spoiled or cloudy, or 3 – 4 days during warmer months. If the birds are not emptying the feeder, it’s unnecessary and wasteful to fill it completely. Frequent cleaning will reduce mold and help prevent deadly fermentation. Clean feeders using 4 parts hot water to 1 part vinegar or 9 part hot water to 1 part bleach using a special bottle brush to clean small holes. Visually inspect the entire feeder for black mold. Rinse all parts of the feeder with water for at least 3 times and allow it to air dry completely before refilling. Don’t try to deter bees, or other insects, with oil or other sticky substances around the feeding ports. It may contaminate the nectar. If insects become a problem, try relocating the feeder.

* Clean Surrounding Area: In addition to keeping the birdfeeders clean, it is essential to clean all nearby areas. Many birds prefer to forage on the ground or will eat spilled seed when feeders are crowded. These areas should be cleaned at least once a month to remove the build-up of hulls, uneaten seeds, and other waste to reduce mold & disease for ground-feeding birds and help prevent rodent infestations. A rake, broom, shovel, or workshop vacuum all work well to remove the waste. Then hose down the area and dispose of the waste appropriately. Periodically moving bird feeders can also reduce the accumulation of waste in one area.

* Offer Fresh Food: Spoiled food is unhealthy both for birds, and if left on the ground, also your outside pets. Store food in a cool area in rodent and water proof containers. Dispose of any food that is wet, smells musty, or appears moldy. Contaminated storage containers and scoops need to also be cleaned. Typically provide only as much food as the birds will eat in one or two days to keep seed from spoiling. It will also make cleaning the feeders easier. During wet weather, provide only enough seed to last several hours.

* Use Safe Feeders: While cleaning the feeder, inspect it for sharp points or edges that can scratch or cut birds. Even small injuries can enable bacteria and viruses to infect otherwise healthy birds. Be sure to place feeders at least 10 feet from low shrubs or bushes that provide cover for cats and other predators who will wait to ambush birds at the feeder. To help prevent mortality from window collisions, place feeders either farther than 30 feet or closer than 3 feet from windows.

* Provide Space: Use multiple feeders and spread them out over a large area to reduce crowding. While seeing several birds at a single feeder may look appealing, the potential for disease transmission between sick and healthy birds increases. Birds are crowded if they have to jostle each other to reach food. Crowding can also cause stress which may make birds more vulnerable to disease.

* Promote Healthy Birds: Don’t wait until sick or dead birds are seen before cleaning feeders. But if the situation should occur, it is best to stop feeding immediately. Remove the dead bird by wearing rubber gloves and placing the bird in a plastic, leak proof bag. Dispose of the sealed bag and rubber gloves in a normal trash receptacle out of reach of pets or scavengers. Wash hands immediately. Clean all feeders and the surrounding area following these guidelines and wait at least two weeks before rehanging feeders.