Dos and Don’ts of Cold Weather Birdbaths and Feeders

Nov 9, 2015 / General Care / Wildlife

[blue jay on blue feeder]

Bird feeders and the simple yet effective concrete birdbath are great ways to attract nature’s own reality show to your windows. In order to make sure your bird oases promote wildlife health this winter, the experts from the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic in Urbana offer these guidelines.

Do keep it clean

In warm weather, rinse and refill your birdbath with the hose every day to keep it free of grime and to prevent disease-carrying mosquito eggs from hatching. Once it’s cold out, however, a daily rinse may be less feasible. One step toward keeping the bath clean is to place it appropriately. In the fall, avoid placing your birdbath under trees and their falling leaves, which can contaminate the water. Bird feeders, which generate a lot of seed debris, should also be located far from the birdbath.

Cleaning the birdbath once a week with a 10 percent bleach solution is recommended to ensure that harmful organisms are destroyed appropriately. Wear gloves and eye protection when working with bleach to protect yourself. Leave the bleach solution in the bowl for two to three minutes, then thoroughly rinse with fresh water to remove all bleach residue, which can be harmful to birds, before refilling the bath.

This same cleaning process can be used for feeders, but feeders must be thoroughly dried before refilling to prevent mold from forming on the seeds. Hanging feeders should be cleaned every couple of weeks, or more often if they are heavily used. Ground feeders become contaminated much more quickly and should be cleaned every other day.

Dr. Nicki Rosenhagen, veterinary intern at the Wildlife Medical Clinic, recommends basing your choice of seeds on the types of animals you hope to attract. “Use thistle seeds to appeal to small birds, such as pine siskins or small finches, millet seeds for ground feeders, such as doves and sparrows, and sunflower or safflower seeds for larger song birds.” Dr. Rosenhagen also cautions that bird feeders attract animals besides birds, including squirrels and other rodents, which may be unwelcome. “Cleaning up fallen seeds from under bird feeders will deter these opportunistic scavengers,” says Dr. Rosenhagen.

Don’t let the water freeze

Again, location is important. Placing the bath on the south or southwest side of your property will maximize warmth from the sun.

When temperatures dip below the freezing point, a heating element can be added to the bath. Many hardware stores that supply wild bird feeders and baths also carry heated baths, or heating elements that can be safely added to birdbaths. Be sure the product is approved for this use, and also be sure that your outdoor outlet is protected in case of an electrical short. These heaters will keep the water around 45 degrees Fahrenheit and will shut off automatically when pulled from the water.

Do keep bird feed dry

To keep your stored seed dry and free of mold, experts recommend keeping it in a simple metal can, such as a clean garbage can, with a tight-fitting lid. Damp seed should always be thrown away. During wet weather, put out only enough seed to feed the birds for a few hours at a time. Suet, either commercially formulated or homemade, tends to last longer in environmental conditions and resists degradation in wet weather.

“Suet is a high-fat diet that can serve as an important energy source for birds in the winter when food is scarce and energy-expenditure is high,” says Dr. Rosenhagen.

Don’t spread disease—or try to treat it

When watching the birds eat and bathe, keep an eye out for birds that appear unhealthy, are not as active as the other birds, or have visible sores. If you see a sick bird at your feeder, it is recommended to thoroughly clean your feeders and to take them down for at least a week to allow the birds time to disperse. This measure reduces the likelihood of transmitting disease to other birds.

“Never attempt to take care of a sick bird on your own,” cautions Dr. Rosenhagen, “as these animals may harbor disease that is transmissible to humans or domestic pets.” Only veterinarians or federally licensed wildlife rehabilitators are legally allowed to treat wild animals. If you find an injured or ill wild animal, Dr. Rosenhagen advises calling a wildlife health professional or bringing the animal to a licensed wildlife facility, if you are safely able to do so.

Happy winter watching!

By Melissa Giese

Photo by David Guthrie