Clean Up, Fix Up Time

Spring means clean-up fix-up time.For backyard birders, these tasks number six. Most take little time, but all are important to birds’ health and well-being.

First, clean feeders. Moldy bits of uneaten seed and hulls as well as accumulated bird droppings on feeder trays trigger disease and sickness in birds. To help keep birds healthy, take feeders down, empty the seed, and scrub all feeder parts with soapy water. To sanitize, wash again with a 9:1 water-bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly, dry, and refill. Yes, snow is gone and spring is popping, but few insects are stirring and certainly nothing has bloomed long enough to produce seed. From now until mid-summer can be a tough time for birds as they put full effort into breeding and nesting. So don’t neglect your feeders. Keep ‘em clean; keep ‘em filled.

Second, clean the yard. Best estimates at our house are that in the past three months we poured out about 600 pounds of birdseed. Residue hulls have pilled up inches thick. They must go. While no one claims bird feeding is mess-free, end-of-winter cleanup can be daunting. But clean up we must, for the accumulated waste harbors mold and spoiled seed, neither of which is good for birds. So rake it up, scoop it up, or vacuum it up. 

But you probably don’t want to use it for mulch, especially not black-oil sunflower seed hulls. Ketzel Levine of National Public Radio’s Talking Plants says sunflower seed hulls “contain a growth inhibitor that is toxic to most ornamental plants.” George Harrison, author of numerous backyard birding books, reports on eNature ( that sunflower seed hulls “tend to poison the soil where they decompose. However they are not toxic enough to kill trees and shrubs.” So do be thoughtful about where you dump the cleanup.

Third, clean birdbaths. A wire brush makes quick cleaning of concrete baths. Then vow to keep the water clean and fresh—daily.

Fourth, clean house—birdhouse, that is. Only certain of our local breeding birds nest in cavities, including Carolina or Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina and House Wrens, Eastern Bluebirds, all of the woodpeckers, American Kestrels, some owls, Tree Swallows, House Sparrows, and European Starlings. Because dead trees usually meet the chopping ax or chain saw and because we rarely use wooden fence posts these days, cavity nest sites are at a premium. If you offer nesting boxes, then, you’ll likely have grateful residents.

Still, birds can’t clean house. So if Carolina or Black-capped Chickadees used your nest box last year, as a good landlord, you must clean out that amazing amount of moss and fine grasses so they can nest again this year. Time is of the essence. Now, in March, our Carolina Wrens have already built this year’s first nest in a favorite old mailbox.

PictureCheck nest boxes for needed maintenance.

Fifth, fix up—or replace—nest boxes. No one wants a leaky house. If side or roof panels have separated, split, or begun to rot, go for a new abode. Unless you’re decorating indoors, skip the cutesy painted ones. Instead, seek sturdy, utilitarian, unpainted, weatherproof, adequately ventilated boxes that are perch-free and easily opened for cleaning. For ant control, sprinkle a teaspoon of flowers of sulfur (from the pharmacy) in the bottom of the box. For wasp control, brush the inside roof with melted paraffin.

Finally, make certain predator guards are in place and functional. Without them, neat little birdhouses mounted on posts make perfect snake lunchboxes—unless, of course, the raccoons get to the dinner table first. You’ll find several styles of predator guards on store shelves. Or make your own. But be sure to use them. Check out for more nesting box details.

These six easy clean-up fix-up efforts will reward you with healthier, happier, and probably more numerous birds.

For more on creating a healthy bird-friendly habitat that attracts the birds you want and simultaneously solves the problems some backyard feeding stations create, see Birds in the Yard Month by Month: What’s There and Why, and How to Attract Those That Aren’t.