How to Clean a Bird Bath Properly

Our feathered friends deserve a spa day, too. A clean bird bath gives avian visitors a comfortable, safe spot to rest and wash—here’s how to keep yours tidy.

A bird bath is an outdoor water feature that serves two important avian needs: Birds, like people, need water to drink and to bathe in, and a well-appointed bird bath provides them with a space to do both. Bird baths should be refilled with water and cleaned regularly to make them a safe and welcoming place for birds to preen and hydrate.

John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities at the National Audubon Society, says, "Regular cleaning is important for a bird bath. The water should be changed every few days, but if you have a lot of birds visiting and the bath is visibly dirty, you may have to clean it more frequently."

There's no question that your bird bath needs the occasional scrubbing—here's how to do it properly.

birdbath in blooming garden with flowers nearby
Bob Stefko

When, and How Often, to Clean a Bird Bath

Cleaning a bird bath is a straightforward job that does not require specialty tools or cleaning solutions, but bird baths do need to be cleaned regularly to ensure that they are safe for and attractive to the birds you hope will stop by for a splash.

Bird bath water should be replaced every 2 to 4 days; when refilling a bird bath, dispose of dirty water and wipe the basin out with a rag before introducing clean water. If the basin is still dirty after wiping, it will need to be cleaned.

"Keep an eye on the bath to make sure the water is clear and it is not getting soiled," Rowden says. Ultimately, he says, the eyeball test is the best measure of whether or not a bird bath is in need of cleaning. "If there is unusually heavy traffic, or if it is a season where things like leaves and blossoms might accumulate, you should pay close attention to whether or not the bath needs cleaning."

What to Avoid When Cleaning a Bird Bath

Bird baths are part of your home's outdoor ecosystem, so care should be taken to keep them safe for your feathered friends as well as for their environs. A stiff scrub brush and water, or a mild solution of diluted vinegar, is all that's needed to clean a bird bath of droppings, algae, and other pollutants.

"Avoid any other cleansers," Rowden says. "They aren't necessary and can harm birds and their plumage." It's also better for the health of your yard, garden, or woodlands to avoid the use of anything harsher than water or vinegar when cleaning a bird bath, as runoff from the cleaning process can end up in the soil, hurting any efforts to improve soil health.

How to Clean a Bird Bath

Cleaning a bird bath involves disposing of dirty water, scrubbing and rinsing the basin, and refilling it with clean water. A bird bath should be replenished with clean water every 2 to 4 days; after emptying the bird bath of dirty water, check to see if the basin needs cleaning and, if so, follow these steps.

What You'll Need

  • A stiff scrub brush
  • White vinegar
  • Clean water
  • A bucket or bowl
  • Water-resistant work gloves

Step 1: Dump out Old Water and Remove Debris

Before cleaning a bird bath, don a pair of water-resistant work gloves, dump out the old water, and remove any debris such as leaves, twigs, and feathers. The old water can be dumped directly into flower beds or on grass; just be sure to distribute it evenly so that it doesn't pool, which can cause birds to mistake the puddle for their bath.

Step 2: Mix the Cleaning Solution

Rowden recommends using a solution of nine parts water to one part vinegar for cleaning a bird bath. Avoid the use of harsh chemical or abrasive cleaners, which can damage the bird bath and the surround area and be unsafe for birds and other wildlife who might stop by for a dip or a drink. Mix the water and vinegar in a spray bottle or bucket for easy application to the bath.

Step 3: Scrub and Rinse the Basin

Scrub the interior of the basin with a heavy-duty scrub brush and the water and vinegar solution, which will scour away algae, droppings, and other foreign matter or growth. While any heavy-duty scrub brush is fine for this job, dedicated bird bath cleaning brushes are available and typically cost between $5 and $15. Rinse the basin thoroughly with clean water after scrubbing with the vinegar solution.

Step 4: Dry the Basin

Allow the basin to dry completely before refilling the bird bath with clean water to ensure that residue from the vinegar solution is completely evaporated. (The birds are looking to bathe, not to be brined!) Placing the bird bath in direct sunlight will accelerate drying time.

Step 5: Refill the Bath

Fill the bird bath with clean water. Experts recommend filling a bird bath with no more than 2 inches of water, as birds prefer to preen in shallower pools.

Tips for Maintaining a Bird Bath

While a bird bath does require frequent care, there are some things you can do to keep it cleaner, longer. The following tips will help to keep the bird bath as inviting as possible.

  • When choosing the bird bath's location, opt for a shady spot over one in direct sunlight; direct sun will cause water to evaporate quickly, leaving a small pool of stagnant water that will hasten bacterial and fungal growth.
  • Always dispose of old, dirty water before refilling with fresh water; avoid "topping off" a bird bath.
  • Place the bath away from bird feeders. If your outdoor space allows for it, position the bird bath in a place where falling leaves, needles, and other flora will not collect in the basin.
  • Drop a penny in the bird bath; copper helps to inhibit algae, which will keep the bath cleaner, longer. Look for a penny from 1982 or before, as pennies minted after 1982 are made primarily of zinc, not copper.
  • Add a wildlife-safe enzyme to the water to help reduce algae growth.
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