How to Feed Birds Safely This Winter

Follow these tips to ensure that you’re creating a healthy environment for wildlife visitors you attract to your yard.
A bottom-up view of a bird feeder, with a nuthatch perched on its side.
Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo: Carla Rhodes

When you attract birds to your yard, you’re creating an environment where they concentrate and mix in ways that are rare in the wild, sometimes making it easier for diseases to spread among them. That hit home this summer, when a mysterious avian ailment killed East Coast and Midwest yard visitors and spurred advisories in many states. While that specific cause for alarm has waned, your drive to keep birds healthy all year should not.

How to Clean 

Dispose of uneaten feed rather than dumping it on the ground, says Sharon Audubon Center wildlife rehabilitator Sunny Kellner. Leftovers can attract pests, so sweep fallen bits occasionally. Then scrub most feeders with soap and water (for hummingbird feeders, you can skip the soap), followed by a 15-minute soak in a 50-50 vinegar-and-water solution to sanitize. Last, remove any residue with a thorough water rinse. If your feeder is dishwasher-safe, let your appliance’s soap and hot water do the work, says Emma Greig, who leads the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. No matter how you clean, it is key to completely dry a feeder before refilling it with food. Leaving moisture inside is a sure way for fungus or bacteria to flourish.

For birdbaths, replace water frequently—ideally daily or every other day—to prevent mosquitos, algae, and bacterial growth. A regular scrub with vinegar solution, followed by a rinse, is helpful, too.

When to Clean 

You can’t always see fungus or bacteria, says Kellner. Growth can occur even inside a seed’s shell. So clean before you spot a problem. Every other week is a good starting point for seed and suet feeders, but cleaning more frequently is best—most especially in humid and hotter weather, says Audubon’s bird-friendly communities director John Rowden.

Every other week is a good starting point for seed and suet feeders, but cleaning more frequently is best.

Hummingbird feeders need more regular maintenance because sugar solution is a petri dish for bacteria. Empty and clean every few days (or, again, even more often when it’s warm out). If you notice white or colorful streaks or spots, it’s way past due for a clean, says Allisyn Gillet, an ornithologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. 

Where to Set Up

Hang a feeder out of direct sunlight and where it’s likely to stay dry. Put baths where plant debris and animal poop won’t easily fall inside (i.e., not right under feeders). Placement near brush will offer birds an escape route from predators.

To minimize deadly collisions, feeders and baths should be either at least 30 feet away from windows or very close to them. At in-between distances, reflections cause confusion and birds have room to pick up speed before striking. (Even better, treat windows to make them more visible to birds).

Don't forget about other animals in your care: Be sure to keep your cats indoors, and keep any other pets or livestock away from feeder areas—including backyard chickens, which also carry avian diseases.

If You See a Sick or Dead Bird

Generally, keep a close eye on birds that visit your yard. If you see a bird that looks ill or injured and unable to fly away, gently place it into a small, lidded cardboard box lined with a paper towel or smooth fabric, Kellner says. Then, find a licensed wildlife rehabber and call for further instructions.

But, if you see a sick bird that is still highly mobile, don’t try to catch it. You’re more likely to hurt it further. If you’ve seen sick or dead birds in your yard, take your feeders down and drain your baths for a few days and report the sighting to your local state wildlife agency. 

This story originally ran in the Winter 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.