Watching birds flutter to and from your feeder can be a rewarding experience, but what if you could get those cuties to eat out of your hand? It is possible, with plenty of patience.
Trying to hand-feed birds can be a fun challenge, but like any wild animal, you will have to gain birds’ trust first.
Gaining the Birds’ Trust
For starters, it helps to have a yard that is attractive to birds: free of roaming pets, full of enticing foods, and with plenty of places to perch. Take notes on when birds come to the feeder, and then start getting them used to your presence.
It may be a good idea to sit or stand (still!) several feet away from the feeder over the course of a few days — gradually getting closer and closer. The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests talking softly to ensure that the birds can get used to your voice.
In addition, topping off the feeders at the same time every day will teach the birds to expect your presence and associate it with delicious rewards. You can add some special treats, like chopped pecans, to the feeders if you want to seem all the more appealing.
You will know when the birds have accepted you. They will no longer hide in the trees and shrubs; instead, they’ll excitedly hop to the feeders and they won’t be scared off as easily if you make a little noise. Once they eat from the feeder when you are standing right next to it, try holding your hand out, palm up, on or right beside the feeder. The birds will eventually eat near your hand.
On a day when the feeder is getting low or is completely empty (or you can even take the feed out temporarily), place nuts and seeds in the palm of your hand and wait patiently for a taker. Once a bird lands on your hand, stay still and absolutely quiet. It may be hard, but try not to swallow — the bird may see that as a sign that you want a tweeting snack of your own!
For your first try at hand-feeding, be sure to choose the birds’ favorite seeds — they won’t go to your hand for just any snack. Of the many frequenters of North American backyards, chickadees, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and titmice have all been known to cozy up to humans for a handful of treats.
These chatty birds are perhaps the friendliest of the backyard varieties. With tiny bodies and big attitudes, chickadees don’t usually seem intimidated by humans. They are curious and plentiful. Their call sounds much like their name, chick-a-dee.
Their favorite foods: suet, sunflower, peanuts
Only a squeak and a hop away, nuthatches are never far from the feeder. You will see these birds climbing headfirst all along the tree trunks (you know, those upside-down birds); it’s what makes them unique — along with their call that sounds a bit like your dog’s chew toy.
Their favorite foods: sunflower, peanuts, suet, peanut butter
Feeding Downy Woodpeckers
While these birds can be a bit flighty, they are significantly less so than their woodpecker cousins. Where there are chickadees and nuthatches, there are usually these speckled beauties. They typically announce their presence either with an obvious swoop toward the feeder or with tap-tapping on a nearby tree.
Their favorite foods: suet, black oil sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts, peanut butter
Titmice, like this tufted titmouse pictured, are curious and almost always seem to be in the mood for a snack. You may have heard their high-pitched peter-peter-peter call in your own backyard.
Their favorite foods: sunflower seeds, suet, peanuts (and pretty much any other seed)
Yep, these tiny, fluttering birds can also be hand-fed. Like with the other birds, consistency is key, but feeding them works just a bit differently.
We recommend holding one of the feeders (and it helps if it is the only available feeder) in your hand — and even providing your finger as a little perch. You can even fill a tiny container and hold it in the palm of your hand to try to get a closer experience. Remember: hummingbirds love the color red, so the more on or around you, the better.
For help identifying the other birds in your backyard, including what they like to eat and how friendly they are, visit Cornell’s bird guide on AllAboutBirds.org.
A few important notes: If you choose to make this a family activity, be wary of letting young ones try their hand at feeding birds; a fidgety toddler will have little success gaining the trust of a bird. Of course, keep cleanliness in mind: always wash your hands before and after you handle wild birds. And once you begin hand-feeding birds, be sure to act gently if you want them to come back. Make sure that they have the freedom to come and go as they please — and do not try to confine them