Cleaning bird feeders and birdhouses


Most of us don’t expect to find a mouse inside our bird feeder, like you see in the photo below! But that would be a good reason to clean it. A close look shows this feeder needs cleaning for other reasons, too, including leftovers and debris inside. Birds appreciate a clean “dinner plate,” as well as housing that isn’t contaminated by germs and parasites. That makes cleaning bird feeders and birdhouses an important task.

Cleaning bird feeders
We know that birds like to keep things clean because they don’t defecate in their nests, and parents remove their nestlings’ droppings. There’s no reason to think birds don’t also like a clean feeder, but from a strictly hygienic standpoint, a dirty one fosters moldy, unhealthy food and, sometimes, dangerous bacteria. Dirty bird feeders can make birds sick.

To ensure that you aren’t accidentally putting contaminated food into your feeders, protect stored seed from rodents, which can carry bird diseases, as well as pollute it with feces and dirt.

mouse inside a bird feeder

A mouse inside a bird feeder. (Bob Franklin / Flickr; CC)

A feeder should be cleaned every two to four weeks. More often, if necessary: Is dirt stuck to it? Are feces stuck to it? Does any of the seed look moldy? Then it needs to be cleaned. (Between cleanings, shake out old seed stuck to the bottom when refilling the feeder.)

Cleaning is especially important following the periods of heaviest usage by local and migrating birds: late winter, early summer, late summer and late fall.

Wear rubber gloves. A bucket, some bleach and a brush (or power washer, if you have one) are all you need. Never use a pesticide. To kill germs and parasites, use a bleach solution of one part bleach to nine parts water (1:9). Position yourself so you won’t inhale any debris that’s in or on the feeder as you clean it. Scrub it inside and out. Rinse well. 

For tubular feeders, use a long, narrow brush that’s sized appropriately for the feeder. Such brushes are available at seed stores and online.

This is a good time to rake up and dispose of all the debris that has accumulated under your bird feeders.

Cleaning birdhouses
Clean birdhouses at least once a year if you want occupants to return season after season. Not only is it important for the birds’ health, but they prefer a clean environment — they routinely remove their nestlings’ fecal matter from the nest.

Make sure fledglings have left the birdhouse by quietly approaching from the side and gently tapping on it. If you hear no noises, raise the hinged roof or sidewall. (Always purchase or build birdhouses that are easy to open — you’ll be glad you did.)

Avoid cleaning birdhouses inside your own house — the nesting material will be unsanitary and also may contain parasites. Wear rubber gloves. As you remove the nest and dispose of it, position yourself so that you won’t be inhaling any of the debris. Or use a face mask or towel over your nose and mouth. Don’t save the nest for display.

Use a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water (1:9). Scrub the feeder inside and out. Rinse well. Leave it in the sun to dry. Some bird species produce more than one brood per season. So, you may want to leave the birdhouse hanging up for use again. Otherwise, store it where it will stay clean. Some people store birdhouses in plastic bags.

Do you leave your birdhouses hanging outside for birds to roost in over the winter? If so, it’s a good idea to clean and disinfect them beforehand to rid them of any parasites. Temporarily plug ventilation holes with foam weatherstripping. If possible, cover the roof with a dark shingle to further insulate and to absorb heat from the sun. Position the shingle to overhang the entrance by a couple of inches, to help keep out rain and snow. If the house has a rotating entrance hole, move it to the bottom (warm air will rise inside, keeping birds warmer.)

A house used over the winter should be cleaned and disinfected again, so it’ll be sanitary for spring’s nesting birds. Remember to remove the ventilation plugs and shingle and rotate the entrance back to the top.

*Tara Allison,; cc by-nc-sa 3.0