How to Safely Feed Backyard Birds

How to Safely Feed Backyard Birds

Birds on feeder by Eric Tymstra

Songbirds at a feeder. Photo by Eric Tymstra

WildCare discourages the feeding of any wildlife. However, we recognize that millions of people love their bird feeders

Feeders bring joy and enrichment to many people's lives, and they can occasionally provide a valuable supplemental food source that improves bird survival.

However, poorly placed and maintained feeders may increase the risks of predation, window strikes and disease, so WildCare discourages bird feeding without total commitment to maintaining the health and safety of avian visitors.

Following the best practices below will help ensure that the birds that benefit from your feeder remain healthy and safe, to return again and again. WildCare's Wildlife Hospital sees too many songbirds sick or injured from contact with careless humans. If you invite them with a feeder, please commit to the following steps to keep your songbird visitors safe.

Priority #1 — Cleanliness (bird feeders and bird baths)

Keeping feeders and the feeder area clean is of the utmost importance! A clean feeder will prevent unsightly messes, minimize attraction of unwanted visitors and help keep birds healthy.

When choosing a feeder, look for models that allow easy cleaning. Easy disassembly and removable parts are a plus, and metal and durable recycled plastic won’t split or crack as wood will, and are easily soaked in cleaning solution. WildCare does not recommend wooden feeders because they are difficult to disinfect thoroughly. Many saucer-style hummingbird feeders are even dishwasher friendly.

As the weather warms, please pay extra attention to hummingbird feeders!

The sugar solution in these feeders molds easily, and the mold can be harmful or even fatal to hummingbirds. Food should be changed every 1 - 2 days... if it is cloudy it has gone bad and needs to be removed immediately.

- To properly clean hummingbird feeders: NO BLEACH! Change food often. Clean and fill with only enough to last 1-2 days (sooner if gets cloudy/moldy). Use vinegar and water in a 9:1 solution (9 parts water to 1 part vinegar) and special bottle brushes to get into small holes. Rinse thoroughly!

A good easy-to-clean feeder.

A good easy-to-clean feeder.

Schedule regular maintenance of your bird feeders and bird baths following these steps to ensure healthy birds:

- Bird feeders should be disinfected every two weeks regardless of disease outbreaks.

- Bird baths should be emptied and cleaned daily regardless of disease outbreaks.

- To properly clean bird feeders: Do not use wooden feeders. Immerse feeders in bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach.) Soak 10 minutes, scrub, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry fully before refilling (a dry feeder will deter mold growth on seeds).

- To properly clean bird baths: You can make a 9:1 bleach solution in a jug to bring outside. Scrub with a hard brush, cover with board while soaking to prevent birds bathing in bleach, rinse very thoroughly, allow to dry before refilling.

Baths and other water sources should be emptied and refilled DAILY, and all water sources must be bleached (see above) weekly.

- To properly clean hummingbird feeders: NO BLEACH! Change food often. Clean and fill with only enough to last 1-2 days (sooner if gets cloudy/moldy). Use vinegar and water in a 9:1 solution (9 parts water to 1 part vinegar) and special bottle brushes to get into small holes. Rinse thoroughly!

- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling feeders or baths.

Additional Tips

- Always wear gloves (latex or dishwashing) to keep bleach off your skin and a facemask to keep from accidentally ingesting feces, bleach, etc.

- Always keep a large tray under feeder to collect hulls/seed that fall. Empty discards every evening. This will prevent mold & disease for ground-feeding birds and also prevent rodent infestations.

- Another suggestion to prevent wildlife problems (from rats, raccoons, skunks, etc.) is to bring feeders inside at night.


Accumulation of fallen seed waste can be prevented by sweeping up regularly (if feeders are hanging over a hard surface, such as a patio), using a large tray underneath your feeder, or rotating your feeder among multiple locations. But perhaps the best way to address messy seed problems is by choosing the right kind of bird food.

Birdseed at Wild Birds Unlimited

Good birdseed contains sunflower seeds and very little filler.

The Right Food

The primary ingredient in most quality wild bird seed blends is sunflower, which may appear either whole in its black shell or hulled to reduce mess and waste (sunflower “hearts” or “chips”). Sunflower is the most attractive seed for most perching songbirds, while white millet is attractive to ground-feeding birds such as sparrows, towhees, quail and doves. Often, seemingly inexpensive “wild bird seed” mixes are loaded with filler or near-filler grains that few songbirds will eat, leaving waste seed on the ground to sprout or attract rodents. Some ingredients to avoid are milo, wheat, sorghum, canary seed or anonymous “grain products.” Remember, look for sunflower!

Other foods will attract specific types of birds. Our beautiful, year-round goldfinches are attracted to a seed called Nyjer, or thistle. Hummingbirds enjoy a sugar water solution (4 parts water to 1 part sugar). Shelled peanuts or suet, both low-mess foods, will attract woodpeckers, jays, chickadees and more.

4_-_squirrel-proof_small-1Unwanted Visitors

Uneaten seed left on the ground will draw out local rodents. Eliminating seed on the ground around your feeder is the best way to avoid attracting rats and mice, and the animals that prey on rodents like raccoons and skunks. Often, these rodents are already resident in an area and are only made more visible by visits to bird feeders; other rodent magnets such as access to pet food or food waste, wood or brush piles, or thick patches of ivy should be removed. Uneaten seed will be greatly reduced by avoiding seed blends with filler ingredients and by regular clean-up as described above.

The second part of the solution is to ensure that only birds can access your feeders. Feeders hanging from a pole can often be protected with a baffle that prevents squirrels and rats from climbing up. Feeders hanging from trees can sometimes be protected by smooth dome baffles which protect feeders from above. Weight-sensitive feeders will close under the heavier weight of mammals and allow the greatest flexibility in placement.

Goldfinch by Laura Milholland

Goldfinch. Photo by Laura Milholland

Healthy Birds

Collisions with windows are one of the most frequent human-caused sources of songbird mortality. A poorly placed feeder, with no other precautions taken, can exacerbate this problem. When they sense a predator, birds will often flee a feeder without being too careful about where they’re heading. Keeping feeders 30 feet or more away from windows will help prevent this, while feeders extremely close (three feet or closer) to windows are generally also safe.

The most common songbird predators encountered around suburban yards are domestic and feral cats. More songbird patients are admitted to WildCare having been "caught by cat" than for any other reason. Place feeders high and above cats' reach for greatest safety, be aware of cats in your yard, and remove feeders if they are attracting feline attention. Learn more about cats and their dangers to songbirds here. For the birds, open visibility directly around the feeder is good, but having nearby trees and other cover is generally beneficial.

The best reason to clean feeders is to prevent the spread of sickness, just as humans clean shared cups, plates and utensils. The most common disease seen in our area is avian conjunctivitis, most frequently seen among House Finches. If you notice birds with swollen or closed eyes, take down and clean your feeders thoroughly, soaking them for a full 20 minutes in a 10% bleach solution. You should wait until you are no longer seeing afflicted birds before putting your feeders back up.

WildCare sees the bad effects of poorly-maintained bird feeders every day in the Wildlife Hospital and we would ask people to please use the information above. The right seed, and proper maintenance (and an eye out for the neighbor's cat) will allow you to enjoy the birds that feeders bring your yard for years to come.

Written with Michael Gedney, Wild Birds Unlimited

Wild Birds Unlimited is a birdfeeding and nature store located in the Vintage Oaks Shopping Center in Novato. They have been featured in WildCare’s Local Heroes column and sell owl boxes for our Hungry Owl Project. You can visit their website at or call the store at (415) 893-0500 to discuss your bird feeding questions.