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Keeping hummingbird feeders clean

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

Let us show you how to make sure your feeder isn't harming the very birds you're trying to attract.

One of the biggest joys of the gardening season is watching colorful hummingbirds flitting around the flower beds. If you have feeders hanging around your garden, don't be surprised if you find yourself filling them up frequently during the most active parts of their spring and fall migrations! In this post, we want to offer some advice for making sure that you're keeping those feeders clean.

Why regular cleaning is so important

Hummingbird feeders are essentially devices that are designed to have a continuous, controlled fluid leak. That means that there are surfaces that are constantly in touch with water; and this, coupled with the warm outdoor air temperature and the sugars inside the nectar, makes these feeders an ideal breeding ground for microscopic fungi and harmful bacteria. Moreover, because hummingbirds' organs are so small, it only takes a small amount of contaminated nectar to effectively poison them.

Unfortunately, we never really see the results of this poisoning; we only see the birds happily feeding, and we assume that as long as the nectar in the feeder looks clean, it's safe for the birds to consume. But if that nectar has been sitting in the feeder for a few days, it could already be contaminated. It only takes 12-24 hours for mold to begin forming during our warmer seasons! And if those birds consume nectar contaminated with invisible microorganisms, they might get sick or die later on, out of sight (and out of mind for us).

The best way to keep mold and bacteria from growing in our hummingbird feeders is to clean them frequently. In the springtime, that means at least once every 3 to 5 days, whether the feeder is empty or not. And in the full heat of the summer (when mold grows fastest), that means cleaning at least once every 2-3 days.

Proper cleaning procedure

A good cleaning procedure for each hummingbird feeder looks like this:

  1. Pour out any unused nectar. Don't try saving it. Anything left in a feeder more than 24-48 hours is potentially contaminated anyway.

  2. Disassemble the feeder according to the manufacturer's instructions. Be gentle with plastic parts that have been sitting out in the sun for some time. Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light makes certain plastics brittle, and these parts may break more easily than you expect.

  3. Soak all parts in warm, soapy water. This will kill most unseen molds and bacteria that may have gathered in the crevices.

  4. After a little while, thoroughly scrub all feeder parts using a bottle brush and/or a small tube brush to ensure that the feeder tank and feeding ports are completely clean--both inside and out.

  5. Allow all parts to dry before reassembling and refilling the feeder.

As long as you're not waiting too long between cleanings, this entire procedure should only take about 15-20 minutes.

Off-season storage

Here in central Texas, hummingbirds begin arriving in March and usually depart by late October. Although we occasionally see isolated winter birds hanging around, it's a good idea to go ahead and take down your feeders in November, giving them one final cleaning and storing them in a dry place until the following spring. Many people leave their feeders hanging during the off-season as an attractive yard ornament, but this is a bad habit--both for the birds and for the feeders. First, even "dry" feeders tend to accumulate unseen pockets of moisture that promote mold and bacteria growth, and this can be dangerous to incidental birds that might feed from them during the winter. Second, feeders that are left empty tend to "dry-rot" over time as airborne sediment erodes plastic surfaces such that they develop porous sections which become difficult to clean--leading to mold "stains." So it's best to just take them down in the winter instead.

We realize that all of this can sound like a lot of work, but really it isn't. It's just a matter of developing the right mindset, recognizing that hummingbirds are wildlife and that feeders aren't simply there for our benefit. By following these steps, you can keep your hummingbird feeders looking great and your birds feeding safely all season long.


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