If you have a bird feeder (or several) hanging outside your home, chances are good you also have a deep appreciation for our avian friends. But feeding the neighborhood birds is only half of a dedicated birder's duties. To keep your favorite fliers safe and healthy, it's just as important that you routinely clean and sanitize those feeders.

"Bird feeders are a high point of contact, so disease can be transferred easily from one bird to another," said Holly Grant, a project assistant for FeederWatch, a citizen science project hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada. "If you keep your feeder clean, it can help reduce the chance at spreading disease further."

Whether your bird feeders hold seed, suet cakes for winter feeding, or sweet nectar for hummingbirds, here's what you need to know to keep them clean.

What you need to clean your bird feeder

Gloves: Because feeders are outside and exposed to wild animals, you should always wear gloves when handling them, said John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities at the National Audubon Society.

Bottle brush: You'll want to clean out the hard-to-reach crevices in your feeders. We recommend using a bottle brush, but Grant said old toothbrushes can work in a pinch. Don't use steel or metal abrasive sponges, she warned. They can scratch the surface of your feeder, and those scratches can provide a new hiding spot for bacteria.

Mild soap: We recommend Seventh Generation Dish Liquid and Dawn Ultra. But any dish soap should work.

Bleach: To properly sanitize your bird feeder, you'll need to use a disinfectant such as bleach.

Disposable bag: Use this to toss the leftover seed — or you can skip the bag and dump the bird food directly into your trash can.

Rake: Use this to clean up any hulls, fallen seeds and leftover debris, which can attract unwanted visitors. We've found that sturdy, steel-tined rakes are most effective.

How long will it take to clean?

The process varies in length, depending on your sanitizing methods. If you're using a bleach solution, it should take 15 to 20 minutes to clean your bird feeder.

How often should I clean my bird feeder?

Bird store owners recommend cleaning feeders at least four times a year, but more often depending on conditions. Aim to clean seed and suet feeders once every two weeks — and more often during humid, warm or wet weather. Bacteria growth is more likely in damp conditions. So if you notice the seed inside has gotten wet, you'll want to clean your feeder as soon as possible. Hummingbird feeders contain a sugar solution, so they should be cleaned every few days, especially if the solution becomes cloudy, Rowden said.

Trash any leftover bird feed, then disassemble the feeder. Old seed can become a breeding ground for mold and bacteria, and it shouldn't be saved or scattered on the ground. It will be easier to get all the gunk out of a disassembled feeder. Some feeders have an easy-to-remove base that's ideal for quick cleaning.

Clean with soap and water, then a stronger cleaning solution. First, use hot water and a mild detergent to clear away stubborn debris or buildup in your feeder. Seed can get stuck around the base and at the top of the feeder. Use a scrub brush or toothbrush to clear the crevices. If you have a tube feeder with tough-to-reach spots, a scrub brush with a long handle is especially useful.

Afterward, soak the feeder in a diluted bleach solution (about nine parts water, one part bleach) for 10 minutes.

Dry your feeder. After rinsing, leave the feeder to air-dry on a towel. Make sure the feeder is completely dry before you refill it with seed. Leftover moisture can encourage bacteria and other pathogens to grow.

Wash your hands. This may seem obvious, but it's worth stating. After you handle your feeders, clean your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Rake under your feeder. Leftover feed that's scattered on the ground can still spread disease and can attract unwanted visitors, like squirrels and bugs. By clearing the ground of empty hulls and uneaten seed, you will make your feeder a safer and healthier space for birds.