A fresh, unfrozen water source can be great to attract winter birds and help them conserve energy, but dirty, contaminated water can be more dangerous than no liquid water at all. Many backyard birders neglect cleaning winter bird baths because of the cold, but it is easy to keep these water features clean and healthy for winter birds to enjoy.
Why Cleaning Bird Baths Is Necessary
Bird baths easily become contaminated with molted feathers, discarded seed hulls, spilled seed, dirt, leaves, feces and other material, but these are only the most visible signs of a dirty bird bath. Many avian diseases are spread through microscopic bacteria, and bacteria accumulate on surfaces birds use frequently, such as the edge of a bird bath. Bacteria can also thrive in the water itself, exposing every bird that takes a sip or splash to disease. In winter, when liquid water sources are scarcer, the concentration of bacteria in a bird bath can be much higher, making contamination much more likely than when birds can visit many different puddles, lakes, or streams. Cleaning winter bird baths helps reduce the risk of contamination and keep birds healthier, helping them survive even the harshest season.
To Clean a Winter Bird Bath
While most backyard birders don't mind cleaning bird baths in the summer when it is a simple matter to use a hose while watering the garden or performing other outdoor chores, it is more difficult to clean the baths in winter when getting wet hands in frigid temperatures can lead to painfully chapped skin and discomfort. Fortunately, it isn't as difficult to clean a winter bird bath as many birders think.
Ideally, choose a winter bird bath that is small and light so it can easily be brought indoors to be cleaned in warmth and comfort. Inexpensive plastic basins are perfect for this, and they can be washed and sterilized easily. If you are able to bring your bird bath indoors for winter cleanings, be sure to use a different cleaning sponge or rag than you would use on other dishes to prevent any inadvertent contamination.
If you are not able to bring a bird bath inside, a few simple steps can help keep it clean and safe.
- Turn the heater off or unplug the heated bird bath before cleaning to protect the heater and eliminate the risk of electrical shocks.
- Dump out the old, dirty water in an area where it will not be accessible to birds. Avoid spilling the water on surfaces such as stairs, decks, paths or patios that will become slick and dangerous if it freezes.
- If you have snow available, use a handful to help scour the bath's surface. The mildly abrasive surface of the snow will remove any dirt buildup in the bath quickly and easily without damage. Otherwise, use a scrub brush or sponge.
- Scrub any immersion heater you use with a moderate vinegar solution to help remove any chemical buildup on the heating element. This will improve how efficiently the heater works as well as be safer for birds. Rinse the heater thoroughly with clean water after it is scrubbed.
- Rinse the bird bath with fresh water mixed with a splash of chlorine bleach to help sanitize it, ensuring that the edges of the bath are also clean and free of debris. Do not use straight bleach because you will not be able to rinse it as thoroughly as you would in the summer.
- Rinse the bath again with fresh, clean water, and refill it to the appropriate level. Plug it back in and turn the heater on, and let the birds enjoy their fresh spa.
More Tips for Clean Winter Bird Baths
To keep your winter birds healthier and provide them better fresh water with ease…
- Position the bath in a sheltered location away from feeders so less seed is likely to spill directly into the water.
- Add rocks in the water or branches across the top to discourage bathing and keep the water cleaner for a longer period.
- Avoid refilling the bird bath with snow or ice; this will add dirt accumulation directly into the water and can overwork the heater.
- Clean the bath more frequently to keep birds as healthy as possible when other water sources freeze and are no longer available.
Cleaning bird baths in icy weather may not be a pleasant task, but it is a necessary one to keep winter backyard birds healthy. Water can attract many different birds to your backyard even in the coldest season, and by offering fresh, clean water, you ensure the birds will return.
Photo – Winter Bath © Mark Levisay