Sanitize Wild Bird Feeders in the Spring

As spring brings migrating birds back north to our wild bird feeders, University of Maine veterinarian Anne Lichtenwalner reminds us that those backyard feeding stations need a little spring cleaning for the safety of wildlife and even domestic pets.

“Even resident, year-round birds are more active as the weather warms, and may be spending more time visibly feeding,” says Lichtenwalner, assistant Cooperative Extension professor and director of UMaine’s Animal Health Laboratory. “Unfortunately, spring can also bring disease to a central site: the feeder.”

Bacteria such as salmonella are normally present in very small amounts in wild birds. Once they congregate — and especially if the feeder allows droppings to fall into the food source — it’s easy for bacteria to start spreading and making birds sick.

Even last year, some wild bird deaths in Maine were documented to be caused by salmonella infection. “It’s more important than ever for the backyard birders to help avoid the spread of this disease,” says Lichtenwalner, who can be reached at (207) 581-2789 to discuss precautions bird lovers can take to keep things safe and healthy for their feathered friends.

Lichtenwalner’s suggestions include:

  1. Take down, empty, and scrub feeders in the spring, using a dilute, 10-percent bleach solution. Dry them with a hair dryer or direct sunlight. Discard old or broken feeders and wear gloves or wash hands afterwards.
  2. Clean up all the old seed around the feeder.
  3. If possible, relocate feeders to a “clean” site.
  4. Be sure the feed you are using is fresh, has been properly stored, and doesn’t smell musty. Get rid of old or spoiled feed; incinerating is best.
  5. Don’t put too many feeders out. As you attract more birds, you may spread disease.
  6. Keep pets away from feeders. This protects both your pets and you, she says.
  7. Don’t handle dead birds with bare hands. Bag them in plastic and dispose of them responsibly, where animals are unlikely to find them.

Other diseases — particularly avian influenza — may cause large die-offs of birds. If you find a group of dead birds with no apparent cause, people are encouraged to call a local Extension office or the state Department of Agriculture and have the birds tested for avian influenza. More information about avian flu can be found at the Centers for Disease Control website (