Ask the Bird Experts: When Should I Clean Out My Birdhouses?

Our bird experts recommend best sugar water practices, when to clean birdhouses in winter, and more!

Is it OK to freeze sugar water or does it harm the birds? When should I clean out a birdhouse for winter? What is this weird bird in my backyard?!

Each month, Birds & Blooms readers send in their burning questions to birding experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, who are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world.

Got a bird question for Kenn and Kimberly? Submit your questions here! They may appear here or in a future issue of the magazine.

Question: I put pinewood shavings in my birdhouse for winter. Is this a proper material, and when should I clean out the house? —Donn Ross of Shelby Township, Michigan

Kenn and Kimberly: It’s always a treat to discover that birds are using your nest boxes to roost at night. To provide insulation in winter, pine shavings are fine to use. Another option is to line the bottom with a few handfuls of clean dried grass. Early spring would be an ideal time to clean out your box in preparation for the nesting season. (Read more: How to Build a One-Board Birdhouse)

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photo credit: Karen Boos (B&B reader)
photo credit: Karen Boos

Question: These birds love my suet cakes. What are they called? —Karen Boos of Dolores, Colorado

Kenn and Kimberly: These little gray bundles of energy are called bushtits. They get their odd name from the fact that they used to be classified in the same family as titmice and chickadees. Bushtits are social birds of western mountains, foothills and coastal woods, and they usually travel in large flocks. You’ve probably notices that several arrive at your feeder at the same time. Here’s a fun fact: If you look closely, you can tell the sexes apart by eye color. Females have whitish eyes, and males have dark eyes. (Read more: Suet Basics: How to Make Suet for Birds)

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photo credit: Jeremy lwanga/Unsplash
photo credit: Jeremy Lwanga/Unsplash

Question: I’ve heard that when sugar water freezes and then thaws, the sugar settles to the bottom of the feeder. Is this true? Does it cause a problem for the birds? –John Taylor of Grants Pass, Oregon

Kenn and Kimberly: Opinions vary on whether it’s OK to freeze surplus sugar water, so we advise erring on the side of caution. We’ve been feeding hummingbirds for decades, and we’ve never frozen our spare food. However, we do refrigerate it for up to a week.

If you have feeders up in weather so cold that the sugar water freezes, we suggest thawing and cleaning out the feeders, then add a fresh batch—just to be sure you’re keeping those flying jewels safe and healthy. You can also bring your feeders indoors at night to prevent freezing, but it’s important to put them back out first thing in the morning. (Read more: Hummingbird Sugar Water 101)

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.