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Proper Maintenance and Setup

To minimize any negative effects feeding can have on wild birds it is important make sure that feeders are set up and maintained properly. 



Feeders should be cleaned frequently to prevent any buildup of mold or bird droppings. If the feeder is left uncleaned these buildups could result in contaminated food that could result in sickness or death for the visiting birds. Birds can also carry certain diseases such as salmonella that can be passed to humans, so use caution when cleaning. A clean feeder is a healthy feeder.

Depending on the climate and type of feeder, cleaning intervals and strategies may differ. The general rule of thumb for a dry seed feeder is to clean it once about every two weeks. However, if the weather is very wet, the feeder is heavily used, or if you have seen signs of sick birds in your yard, or near your feeder you should increase the interval to about once a week. Cleaning can be done with either hot water or a light vinegar solution. Do not use dish soap as it can leave deposits harmful to birds. Be sure to remove any feed so the entire feeder can be cleaned entirely, and allow to dry before refilling. 


For a nectar feeder, the strategies are a bit different. Due to the sugary feed and the warm weather during the hummingbird breeding season, nectar feeders are much more prone to mold contamination. Mold can cause deadly fungal infections. In cooler weather (below 60°) cleaning can be done once a week. In hotter weather (above 80°) clean and refill with fresh solution twice per week to avoid spoilage. If the feeder is emptied before you would usually clean it, take the opportunity to clean before refilling it. Cleaning can be done with either hot water or a light vinegar solution. Do not use dish soap as it can leave deposits harmful to birds. It is also important to scrub interior surfaces and feeding portholes. Small bottle brushes, or dedicated cleaning toothbrushes can be used to accomplish this. Soaking in a hot vinegar solution can also help just be sure to rinse completely before refilling.

Proper Weather Protection

To keep feed safe to eat, most feeders need to be able to protect their contents from the elements. Feeders that offer dry seed should ideally have some sort of rain protection and drainage for periods of wet weather. If feed is able to get and stay wet this can foster mold growth. If you notice your feed is getting wet consider placing it under a tree for more rain shelter, or buying/building a better roofed feeder. If you are having trouble with water collection at the bottom of your feeder. Extra drainage holes can be drilled. For certain types of feeders such as nectar feeders and suet cages, shade can be important to prevent spoilage of the feed.

Spotting Sick Birds

Seeing a sick bird or two can be a good indicator that you may need to clean your feeder more frequently. Sick birds will usually exhibit one or more of these signs and symptoms. Although some of these may just be signs of normal processes such as molting or some sort of deformity, birds with multiple symptoms are likely to be sick.

1. Dull, unfocused eyes

2. Fluffed or rumpled feathers when it is not cold

3. Swollen eyes or membranes

4. Wet or crusty eye, mouth, or nose discharge

5. Dirty, matted feathers

6. Missing feathers

7. Visible injuries, lesions, or wounds

Window Protection

Feeder Location and Threat Reduction

The location of your feeders in your yard or outdoor space is a very important element to ensuring the safety of birds.


One large danger that needs to be addressed is windows. Ornithologists estimate millions of birds die from window strikes each year. Breaking up window reflections with cardboard cutouts or some sort of interior netting is one option to reduce this risk. If you do not wish to modify your windows, your best option is to keep your feeder at least 3 feet away from them.

Natural predators are another threat that songbirds face at the feeder. Bird eating raptors may be seen around your feeder preying on birds. This sight may be a welcome close-up view of these creatures, but it is best to take down the feeder for a few days until these predators move on. Placing feeders within 15 feet of cover such as an evergreen tree or thick brush can also keep birds safe.

Because bird feeders can attract a large number of birds to one area, disease transmission is another large threat. Properly spacing out feeders across an area can help mitigate this impact. A good rule is to put feeders that are offering different foods in distinct areas. They should be at least a few feet apart. This may help reduce the amount of traffic at a single feeder and therefore reduce pathogen transmission.

Cats: The Largest Threat

The largest predatory threats birds face are our very own feline friends. Domesticated cats kill millions of songbirds every year, and scientists are beginning to see a negative trend in some songbird populations where roaming cat numbers are high. The safest option is to keep your cat indoors if you are feeding birds. However, even if you keep your cats indoors your neighbors may not. Many homes have free roaming cats that may help with pest control in barns and other agrarian areas. There is also a large population of free roaming strays in Western PA. 


There are steps you can take to give birds a better chance against these threats. Keep your cat indoors in the early morning and evening as birds are most vulnerable then due to low visibility. Another step you can take is installing a bell on your cat's collar or a noise-making cat bib. If your cat is used for pest control, noise-makers may still be effective at reducing bird kills, but leave your feline an effective hunter of small mammals. In one study, these instruments were shown to reduce mammal kills by 34% and 41% fewer bird kills than cats with no attachments. A more pricy option is a sonic emission device for collars. These reduced mammal kills by 38% and bird kills by 51%. Controlling household pests is still possible with these devices. They decrease the efficiency of avian hunting more than that of small mammals, so they are a viable option.


Providing good cover and placing feeders at the proper height is also paramount when protecting against cats. Feeders should be within 15 feet of cover such as an evergreen tree or dense brush, but also have enough open area around that birds can spot hiding cats. Placing the feeder at least 6 feet above ground can also be a good strategy as most cats cannot jump from the ground above this height. The only 100% way to keep birds safe from your pets is to keep them indoors. However, these other strategies and combinations of tactics will give your backyard birds a better chance if implemented. 

Cat Protection
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