It's March and winter weather seems to finally be on its way. It's a little early to think that we've seen the last of it, but warm sunny days are coming more regularly now. As the sun peeks out from behind the clouds and temperatures start to rise, the activity level in our rural neighborhood is picking up. The rural wildlife are venturing out of their winter hiding places, and we're seeing a flurry of springtime bird activity as they find partners for the nesting season and burst out in song.
In my childhood days, this was the time of year when my mother's thoughts turned to spring cleaning. She'd put screens in the windows and open them wide, carry the old musty rugs out into the sun for a good airing on the porch, and hang the clothes out to dry for the first time all year in the bright sun and cool spring breezes. I remember well that first fresh smell of the outdoors on Mother's newly washed clothes and wind-whipped sheets. After several long dark months of braving the biting cold, wind, and snow, moving things outdoors and escaping that cooped-up feeling was, for us, literally like a breath of fresh air. Spring just never could arrive soon enough.
But do you ever stop to think about the need for spring cleaning in our little bird neighborhoods? Now is the time to turn our attention to doing a little tidying up for our feathered friends. Although it's still a little nippy out and we really don't want to think about cleaning out birdhouses, it really is an important job that needs to be done. The birds will soon be returning in their northward migration, and those that have remained all winter will also be vying for nesting sites in our backyards. If the birdhouses didn't get cleaned of debris and old nest materials last fall when they were put away for the winter, then they are due for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting. Or if some were left up during the cold months for birds to roost in, then they will need to be freshened up for this year's new families. They need to be opened up and cleared of left-over debris, and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected for parasites, which are common in birdhouses and will feed on roosting birds and their babies. A thorough washing of the inside is usually all it takes to resolve an insect parasite problem. And we must be sure to give it a thorough rinsing and drying before making it available to the birds again.
If the birdhouse needs a fresh coat of paint or stain, now is the best time to take care of the job. Selecting natural tones like brown, tan or green will blend in better with the natural surroundings and seem to be preferred by most birds. Bright, shiny or colored houses are sometimes rejected, the theory being that they may catch more easily the attention of predators.
Once the birdhouses are clean and ready for move-in day, it's time to turn to the birdfeeders. Chances are, there wasn't much cleaning going on during the winter months, and the feeders are sure to have accumulated dirt, dried or moldy food, or other bird waste and can be quite unhealthy for the birds to feed on. Soaking the feeder first in a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) to kill the bacteria is always a good idea. Then using toothbrushes, pipe cleaners, or bottle brushes to get into all the nooks and crannies to clean food bits, dirt, and bird droppings is always helpful. Tube feeders can be a challenge sometimes because there can be so many parts to them, so removing as much as possible and using a solution of bleach and water to soak all the parts first can make the job easier. If soaking alone doesn't get it clean enough, then a little elbow grease may be required along with an old toothbrush to get into all the cracks and crevices.
For wooden feeders, using a mild dishwashing detergent in warm water and a stiff bristle brush should prove helpful--no bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly and let dry completely before refilling with birdseed. Ground-feeding trays should be emptied, and any clinging hulls or seeds should be discarded. These should also be washed in a bleach solution and rinsed and dried thoroughly before filling them with fresh seed. Suet feeders should also be washed and sterilized in a bleach solution, then rinsed and dried completely before refilling with suet or suet cakes. Periodically rake beneath your feeders to rid the area of birdseed hulls that may harbor bacteria that could spread bird diseases. This is an often overlooked, but important, maintenance activity.
Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned and ready for when the little hummingbirds return in the spring. These can get quite grimy and with their many nooks and crannies can be difficult to clean. Disassemble, empty, and wash with detergent and hot water, then rinse thoroughly. An easy solution would be to mix one part vinegar to four parts water and throw a handful of rice grains into the inside of the small or narrow nectar receptacle. Swish around vigorously until most or all of the inside has been completely cleaned. The abrasive action of the rice grains can be quick and effective. Clean the feed holes with a fine bottle brush or wire probe. Sterilize the feeders next in a bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly and let dry before refilling them with nectar or sugar solution.
Maintaining a clean birdbath is always an important part of keeping the birds healthy and eager to return to our yards. It too needs regular cleaning to remove algae and harmful bacteria. A mild solution of bleach will usually suffice, followed by multiple rinses. A good stiff brush may be necessary to remove stubborn stains or algae. Be careful when refilling it--the water should be shallow enough for the birds to stand in. A few pebbles placed in the bottom can help them to keep their footing in the water. Too deep, and the birds won't stop to bathe and enjoy! Having a water source in your yard can be useful for all the birds, but will serve to attract several spring and summer species that don't use birdhouses and will not typically eat from feeders. Keeping a clean water source in your yard will keep them coming back for more!
Getting our spring cleaning chores out of the way early can be like putting out the welcome mat for the spring return of our feathered friends. It's best to get everything cleaned and ready before the start of the nesting season. If we can fulfill this obligation, it won't be long before we have lots of birds flocking to call our backyards "home." And all that's left for us to do is sit back and enjoy!