Do Bird Feeders Need To Be Cleaned?

There are so many choices of bird feeder out there; simple bird tables, plastic tube feeders, metal cage feeders, even fancy spring-loaded squirrel-proof feeders. One thing is for sure – over time they will all become dirty and show signs of wear. Today I am going to be looking at cleaning bird feeders.

Do Bird Feeders Need To Be Cleaned? From experience I can tell you – YES, bird feeders do need to be cleaned. They should be cleaned properly and often for a couple of reasons. Mainly to rid them of debris and mess. The other reason is to help prevent the spread of diseases passed on throughout the avian world.

Why Do Bird Feeders Need To Be Cleaned?

There are two very obvious reasons why bird feeders should be regularly kept clean – to prevent mouldy and unsafe food in the feeder and to help prevent the spread of disease. Let’s take a look at these in a little more detail.

Cleaning Bird Feeders To Prevent Disease

The three most common avian diseases that are prevalent at bird feeders are:

Salmonella – a bacterial infection

Trichomonosis – affects a bird’s digestive system

Avian Pox – a viral skin infection

You can read more about these here on the RSPB website.

The simple act of giving your bird feeders a clean from time to time can save our wild garden birds from becoming sick and dying. Here is why – Avian Pox, for example is spread by direct bird-to-bird contact or just as likely from contaminated surfaces, such as perches. Bird feeders can be busy places and the chances of sharing the disease is high. Keeping all surfaces of a feeder clean will help to stop this.

Salmonella on the other hand, is spread through droppings. If you pay attention to your feeders you will probably see droppings on them. You will definitely see droppings on the ground around your feeders. Not only by keeping your feeders clean but by keeping the ground underneath them clean, you will be greatly reducing the spread of disease. Moving your feeders to a different spot in the garden can help reduce the build up of droppings in one spot.

Mouldy Food & Seed

A problem many back garden ‘twitchers’ experience is bird seed not being consumed as quickly as they would expect. This leads to old seed (or other bird food) being exposed to the elements and soon becoming damp, mouldy and unsafe for birds to eat. Mouldy food can provide a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites. Not only this but what a waste of seed!

So, not only dose gone off food look bad in a feeder when it starts to sprout or turn mouldy, it encourages bacteria and disease to spread. An easy way to resolve this is to limit the amount of bird food you are putting out. It could be a temporary things and birds will soon return in their droves to gorge on your offerings. Until then, put less out so there is less chance of it going off.

How Often Should Bird Feeders Be Cleaned?

Now we know that bird feeders do need to be cleaned and why it is so important, there is another question – how often should you clean bird feeders? We should be cleaning and disinfecting our bird feeders as often as we can, especially if they look like they need it. Every week or two might be a challenge, so at least every month will be adequate – more often if a feeder is busy and well used.

The answer to ‘how often’ this will vary though, because not all feeders are the same, nor is the food and neither is the environment in which we all live. As a general rule of thumb, if your feeder is starting to look like it needs a clean – clean it.

If it looks that bad its generally because there is seed starting to discolour or germinate and you will see traces of droppings on the feeder. It may not be realistic to get out to clean your feeders every week so, as long as you keep on top of this in some way you will be doing your bit. Better late than never!

Don’t Wait Until A Feeder Looks Dirty

If the current Coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, viruses and other bad stuff can be ‘hiding in plain site’. A bird feeder shouldn’t have to look grotty before it gets cleaned and disinfected. The best idea is to just take care of your feeders, cleaning them as often as you can. Yes, it is a faff doing it but for the sake of a few minutes on each feeder every couple of weeks, the birds will be healthier and safe, they will keep coming back to your garden and your feeders will last a lot longer.

How To Clean Your Bird Feeder

The all important question – how do you clean a bird feeder? This might sound obvious but there are a few things to take into consideration. For example, what do you use to clean it? Do you need to take your feeder apart to clean it? One thing is for certain, you must avoid using harsh chemicals to clean a bird feeder. But some people ask about using bleach or vinegar to clean a bird feeder. Can you? Should you? I’m going to answer those questions below.

Hygiene & Safety

This is so, so important. Please do not underestimate how harmful handling a used bird feeder can be. It sounds like I am exaggerating but after handling a feeder, just one careless wipe of an eye or touch of the face could transfer… well, who knows?? Here are a few dos and don’ts:

  • Never bring a bird feeder inside your home to clean it. As we already know, they can be riddled with all kinds of nasty stuff we can’t see; the kind of stuff that is harmful to birds and that could make us ill. Clean your feeders outside.
  • Use a separate set of tools or utensils to clean your feeders. Do not use things from your kitchen drawer, which will be returned later. I keep a small collection of things in a box that I only use for cleaning bird feeders.
  • Wear disposable cloves if you have them. So many more people now have masks and disposable gloves around, due to COVID-19. If you can spare a pair of gloves each time you clean your feeders, you will reduce the likelihood of transferring the ‘nasties’ into your home.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly when you finish. Even if you wear gloves to clean your feeders, wash your hands afterwards. It makes good sense to do so, knowing what we do about what could be lurking on a bird feeder.

The Best Way To Clean Your Bird Feeders

There are a few methods of washing your bird feeders. You can use any of the following:

  • warm soapy water, using a mild detergent such as fairy liquid or similar.
  • a mild disinfectant solution, such as this one (https://amzn.to/368Aphs).
  • A weak bleach solution can be used (1:9 ratio of bleach to water).
  • Definitely avoid harsh chemicals like bathroom cleaners and other harmful sprays.

(The RSPB recommend a 5% disinfectant solution)

It is a good idea to have a couple of bowls or buckets available for this job. One bucket will be for warm soapy water, the other will be clean water for rinsing. If you have a hose available, even better. Here are some simple steps to follow:

  1. Take the feeder apart. You might be able to clean your feeder without taking it apart. However, I advise that if you can you should. This way you know you have got into every nook and cranny to get this thing clean and hygienic. Scroll further for advice on taking apart your feeder. It will not always be so obvious!
  2. Using warm soapy water or choice of disinfectant, wash all parts of the feeder. You should scrub each part of the feeder inside and out and make sure you clean it well. If you do this fairly regularly it will be easy. If a feeder is long overdue a clean, you will be working harder! Below I have listed a few handy utensils to keep handy.
  3. Rinse the clean parts in fresh water. This is important because you don’t want to leave any residue on the feeder that may deter the birds from returning.
  4. Air dry your feeder. Set your feeder or components aside to dry naturally. Ensure they are completely dry before putting the feeder back together. If a feeder is refilled when wet or damp, seed will start to stick, may develop mould and breed bacteria very quickly.
  5. Put the feeder back together (if required). Once your feeder is back together and completely dry, you can fill it with seeds or food again.  

Can You Clean Bird Feeders With Vinegar?

Yes you can. In fact, many other birding websites recommend that you use vinegar to clean your feeders. If your feeder is particularly well used, it may be better to scrub your feeder with soapy water first. This will be better at removing stuck on debris before using the vinegar as a disinfecting agent. It is suggested you use one-part white vinegar to nine-parts water.

Can You Use Bleach To Clean Bird Feeders?

Yes you can, as mentioned above. Use the same solution ratio as vinegar (one-part bleach to nine-parts water). You are more likely to have some bleach under the kitchen sink and may prefer to use this, rather than spending money on a branded (more expensive) disinfectant. Bleach will definitely kill off any nasty stuff hiding on a bird feeder. Be careful though, bleach is nasty stuff.

Utensils For Cleaning Bird Feeders

Regularly cleaning your bird feeders may be an inconvenience but it doesn’t have to cost you much. Here are a few recommended tools and utensils you might want to keep to one side for bird feeder cleaning.

Washing up liquid – cheap and readily available.

Toothbrush – an old toothbrush is perfect for cleaning those hard to reach places.

Kitchen sponge – those little rectangular sponges we use to wash the dishes. Cheap to buy and free to recycle. That little green scouring pad on one side is good for stubborn debris too!

Small flat blade screwdriver – handy for releasing catches and clips in narrow places.

Bottle cleaning brush – like a bigger version of what is used to clean inside a recorder at school. I’d consider buying one if you have a tube feeder. This is an example I found on Amazon. (https://amzn.to/3ol96qs)

How To Take Apart A Bird Feeder

It is highly recommended that you take apart your bird feeder in order to wash it thoroughly, leaving behind no place for germs to hide. I will admit this is something I had not always bothered to do. However, since reading all about the diseases spread by birds and the fact one of my feeders had sprouting seed trapped inside for months, I was determined to work out how to take the thing apart.

Depending on what material your feeder is made of there will likely be a certain type of fastening or release method to work out. They are not always obvious and you may need to look a bit closer. Once you identify this it should be a straight forward process of releasing or unscrewing something then gently pulling things apart.

How To Take Apart A Bird Feeder Made Of Metal

If you have a metal bird feeder, the chances are it will be held together with good old fashioned screws. Metal is a lot stronger than plastic and screws will not cause damage between metal and metal.

Sometimes it might be obvious where to stick a screwdriver but on some feeders it might need a closer look around. Look for thin lines between two parts, indicating they are held together some how. Normally the perches and feeding ports are held in by more than just a small clip.

On my feeder, shown in the photo, the one screw holding everything in place was inside the feeding port. It had become hidden among debris and had corroded and so difficult to spot.

How To Take Apart A Bird Feeder Made Of Plastic

Plastic is not as durable as metal, so most bird feeders made of plastic will be held together using clips or lugs. Other than a small grub screw securing a tube to a lid, it is unlikely you will find metal screws holding a plastic feeder together.

Look for small grooves, usually equally spaced around the main component of the feeder. I’m making this all sound very technical but they should be obvious. Even the little feeding ports on a niger seed feeder have a little lug on the back holding to the tube.

Once you find these little lugs you can release them by either gently squeezing one of the parts away from the other. Or, by carefully inserting a small flat bladed tool like a mini screwdriver or plastic blade.

It can be tricky if there are more than two of these because you might find you have to keep some pressure on the part while releasing all of the lugs. Otherwise, each one could click back into place as you do the next.

It is the removal that is hardest. Putting back together is easier because these lugs or clips will ‘click’ back into place once they pass a certain point.

Cold Weather And Plastic

Be careful when taking apart and handling plastic bird feeders in cold weather. Plastic changes state depending on temperature and environment. In the cold plastic can become brittle and snaps a lot easier.

Recently I was refilling a tube feeder, which has plastic perches it fell over on the patio slab. It only fell a few inches but ‘SNAP!’ – one perch gone. Just go easy with pushing and pulling small bits of plastic if you are outside on a cold day.

Conclusion

Cleaning bird feeders is a must and they should be cleaned as often as possible if they are well used, at least every two or three weeks. The main reasons for cleaning bird feeders is to prevent the spread of disease, as well as keeping preserving them in a tidy state.

Bird feeders should be cleaned with warm soapy water, or with a mild disinfectant solution. You can use a mild bleach solution and you can even use white vinegar instead of bleach. Both products act as a cleaning agent and as a disinfectant. a 1:9 ratio is recommended.

Due to the risk posed by bacteria and viruses present on bird feeders, it is a good idea to keep a separate set of tools or utensils for cleaning feeders. Do not take your feeders inside your home to clean

Taking feeders apart is recommended, as this gets to all the places in need of a clean. It also releases any trapped seed between parts. Plastic and metal feeders are manufactured differently – plastic feeders are usually held together with flexible lugs that lock into place; metal feeders normally employ screws or bolts.

Happy Cleaning!!