An ornithologist explains the best proven method for eliminating bacteria and mold.

By Kier Holmes
February 20, 2020
PhotoPlus Magazine / Getty Images

No one knows for sure when humans began feeding birds, no doubt thousands of years ago, but this practice most likely coincided with point at which the habits of birds changed to be become scavengers around homesteads. Nowadays, feeding birds is a common and enjoyable routine, plus it benefits many bird species, especially during severe weather and long periods of snow cover. These sleuths with feathers quickly find food sources, and return to them again and again, so deciding to feed birds is a real commitment. This means it's important to keep your feeder well stocked and—a lesser-known fact—well cleaned.

Related: The Most Common Birds You'll See in Your Backyard—and One of the Rarest

How to Clean a Bird Feeder

First, remember to keep any type of feeding station clear of rotting food or seed scraps as birds can become sick. Plus, you want to avoid the risk of attracting squirrels, rats, or mice that can bring infection or disease. Pro tip: Plastic feeders are healthier than moisture-retaining wooden ones. Consider rotating your feeders around to reduce debris from building up in one area.

According to an article published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, researchers at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania conducted studies to figure out the best way to reduce levels of salmonella bacteria on wild bird feeders. They discovered that cleaning methods using a bleach soak were better at reducing bacteria than just scrubbing with soap and water. They also found that feeders with leftover debris had more bacteria after cleaning than new feeders, regardless of how the feeder was cleaned. David Bonter, the Arthur A. Allan director of citizen science at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, suggests, "Soak or scrub a feeder with a 10 percent bleach solution, rinse it thoroughly, and let it dry before adding bird feed. If your feeder has visible debris, be sure to scrub as long as necessary to remove all debris before cleaning it." Also, if your feeder has removable parts, be sure to disassemble it to clean the nooks and crannies. A clean bottle brush is a great tool for this job.

How Often to Clean

Bonter says, "You should clean your seed feeder about once every two weeks, more often during times of heavy use or during warm and damp conditions." And let's not forget our hummingbird friends. Mold can quickly grow in sugar water, especially during warm weather, so hummingbird feeders should be scrubbed every time you refill the nectar (potentially every two to five days). If you see signs of black mold or cloudy water, ditch the solution and clean the feeder.

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