The rain started around 7 p.m. and didn't stop until long after dark. Checking my official conservation district rain gauge the next morning I found nearly 2 inches of precipitation, great for gardens and trees.

However, downpours like this past summer's do have a down side for the birds who visit our feeders: Heavy rain penetrates feeders, and soggy seed is not just unpalatable but sometimes downright dangerous.

Birds can develop respiratory disease from inhaling mold spores that grow on damp seed and some will end up dying of pneumonia. There are several other diseases that can harm birds that visit our feeders, as well.

An important -- but too often overlooked -- aspect of feeding birds is the absolute need to keep feeders clean. Sure, many people don't bother to take down their feeders and clean them regularly. They pour new seed on top of old in dirty feeders, month after month, and these people are almost surely making birds sick without realizing it.

Regular cleaning of feeders is critical to keeping birds healthy, but it doesn't have to be onerous or time-consuming. Let me describe the steps I take after a big rain or wet snow, when all seven bird feeders need attention (not counting suet feeders; suet isn't harmed by precipitation).

Rain can seep in at the feeding ports on both plastic tube feeders, dampening the mix of nyger seed and sunflower chips. I pour each feeder's seed into a plastic container, tossing any clumps into the trash. A handy stick dislodges seeds stuck to the inside walls and a paper towel swipe takes care of any dampness. Then I refill the feeders with the saved, de-clumped seed and add some new nyger and chips.

Now lets turn to the wire mesh peanut feeders, filled with out-of-the-shell peanuts. Birds adore this treat, but water and peanuts are a bad combination: Wet nuts quickly develop a mold that can be fatal to birds. The peanuts settle into a solid, wet mass, which I toss under a pine tree for the squirrels. Again, a paper towel mops up any residual moisture, new peanuts are poured in and the feeders go back on their shepherd's hooks.

Even though the two feeders dispensing safflower seed are covered by domes, some of the seed always gets wet and sticks together. I pull out the wet stuff and toss it in the trash, then replace it with fresh seed. Next, a check of a roofed platform feeder turns up some dampness in the large sunflower seeds, but I figure that their heavy shells protect the nut meats inside and birds go through these so quickly they shouldn't be a problem.

That's seven feeders checked, cleaned, refreshed and ready for birds, all in less than 20 minutes. This is necessary after every strong rain (or wet snow) and is, I figure, a small price to pay for the pleasure of visits by cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, house finches and goldfinches, blue jays and several kinds of woodpeckers. Every month I take each feeder down, wash it inside and out, dip it in a solution that's nine parts water, one part chlorine beach, then rinse very thoroughly and let it dry.

It's not only rain that's a problem. Seed-eating birds produce a great deal of saliva to help digest their dry diet, and this can build up at feeding ports, especially on tube feeders. And then, birds defecate soon after they eat.

Is all this cleaning really necessary? In a word, yes. Feeding birds from dirty feeders is worse than not feeding birds at all, since it can literally sicken them to death.

Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at


Things you can do to maintain good hygiene around your feeders:

1. Store seed in a cool spot in metal containers with weighted lids (metal garbage cans work well) to keep out rodents, and check often to make sure seed stays dry.

2. Keep feeders clean: Check after precipitation and give them a thorough cleaning once a month.

3. Give them room: Birds bunching up at feeders is a key factor in spreading disease, so space out feeders.

4. Rake up the area under feeders to protect ground-feeding birds and to discourage rodents.

5. For open platform feeders, put out only as much food as birds consume in a day.

6. In warm weather, don't use raw suet; instead, offer rendered suet in suet cakes.

7. Give tube feeders a good shake before adding new seed.