Have you ever wanted to hand-feed wild birds? This short guide walks you through the key steps for forming trusting relationships with the birds that visit your garden each day. With this gentle process, over a period of time, they will eventually be happy to take treats right from the palm of your hand. Like any good relationship, it’s not something you can rush, but when it happens, hand-feeding is a most rewarding experience.
For the top recommended bird feeders, seed, and supplies, also see The Complete Guide to Feeding Birds.
A Bird in the Hand
This guest post by Hallie Tennant walks you through the basic steps for forming a trusting relationship with the wild birds that visit your feeders each day. Even if you don’t want to hand-feed, you may find this helpful.
It’s common for birds to fly off when a human enters their feeding space. These steps will show you how to get them comfortable with your presence.
If you’d like to see live action hand-feeding, scroll down to the bottom for some neat videos.
If you have your own experience with hand-feeding wild birds, please share your tips in the comments.
Images courtesy of Pixabay.com
Best Birds for Hand-feeding
We’re in Ontario, Canada and here the birds most likely to adapt to hand-feeding are chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and downy woodpeckers. Blue Jays can also learn to catch tossed peanuts.
10 Steps Toward Hand-feeding Wild Birds
Get ready to unleash your inner Snow White.
NEW! Click play to listen:
Subscribe to our free podcast here: Two Minutes in the Garden.
1) Create a bird-friendly environment
- Having lots of tall, dense foliage with plenty of places to perch will create a safe, welcoming environment for a variety of wild birds.
- Plants that produce flowers or fruits that appeal to birds are an obvious good choice.
- If you have pets, make sure that they are not allowed in the yard at feeding time – you need a calm, predator-free environment for this to work.
2) Start a feeding schedule
- Fill your feeders at the same time every day. We like Brome Squirrel Buster Feeders.
- Before you start, take note of what time the birds naturally like to eat for a few days, then start putting out the feed at their preferred time each day.
- This way, the birds will start to get used to seeing you around and even associate you with food (yum!).
- Also take note of seasonal changes in your local bird population –birds, like any other animal, are built for survival so they will eat different things in different places at different times of year.
3) Butter them up – Not literally
- Add some treats to your regular bird feed (e.g. chopped walnuts or pecans) before you start teaching them to hand feed so they will associate their favourite foods with your visits.
- Once they’re comfortable with you, you will use these treats to entice them into eating straight from your hand.
4) Think like a tree
- Once the birds are used to seeing you around while they eat, slowly start standing a little closer to their feeder each day.
- I’d recommend starting at least 10-15 feet away on the first day, then slowly closing the gap by a couple of feet on each successive visit.
- Remember, you want to make yourself part of their natural environment so they’re not afraid.
- Channel your inner tree: keep as still as you can and avoid any sudden movements or loud sounds.
5) Talk to your new friends
- Okay, so you’re a talking tree. Speaking to the birds in a soft, relaxed tone of voice can help them acclimatize to you and –even better!– start to associate the sound of your voice with delicious food.
- If you are not a talking-to-animals type of person, this may feel a bit silly at first, but bear with me. Your new buddies will appreciate it. And you might just find a new friend.
6) Don’t be a stranger!
- Visit often – feel free to take breaks of a few days or even a week or two between visits, but keep in mind that the more often you visit, the more comfortable and relaxed the birds will be around you.
- On the other hand, however, let your friends leave if they want to – if you follow them around, they will think you want to eat them.
- Assuming you don’t, let them leave freely and be patient –if they like you and your food, they will come back on their own time.
7) Lend a hand
- Once your birds are comfortable with you standing by while they feed, gently reach your hand with palm up to the feeder without any food in your hand.
- Avoid the use of fragranced beauty products or perfumes that could sicken or repel the birds.
- Once you’ve done this a few days in a row and the birds are used to eating near your hand, then you’re ready to start feeding them yourself.
- Note: DO NOT try to grab a wild bird, ever. This may seem obvious, but unless it is sick or injured and you absolutely have to pick it up, never close your hand around a bird.
- Keep your hand open and flat with your palm up.
8) Provide them with their favourite treats
- Once they are used to eating near you, place a few of their favourite treats (the same ones you added to their food when you first started) in the palm of your hand.
- Keep calm and still and wait for them to eat the treats from your hand.
- If they don’t jump in right away, don’t fret –after a few times of snatching treats, they will start to become bolder and hop right into your hand.
9) Avoid swallowing – Yes, really!
- According to the Farmer’s Almanac, swallowing near a wild bird will make it think you want to eat it. While perhaps a silly notion, the point may be not to make any sudden movements or sounds. I’ve also noticed it helps to look away instead of directly at the birds.
- Also, avoid opening your mouth or smiling too widely, both for the same reasons.
- Remember, the more successful interactions you have with the birds, the more likely they are to come back!
10) Most importantly: BE PATIENT
- With any relationship (humans, animals), building trust takes time.
- Be patient and kind to your little friends and your delicate work will pay off! You’ll be a veritable Snow White before you know it.
If you try this, we’d love to hear how it goes. And again, be gentle and patient. It takes time!
LISTEN! Click play to hear “Is it Okay to Feed Birds”
We do new stories like this every week, so be sure to subscribe to our gardening podcast to hear the latest episodes. Or, if you have an Amazon Alexa device, you can enable our Flash Briefing.
Hand-feeding Bird Videos
Lesley the Bird Nerd has wonderful videos showing various birds that hand-feed.
If you enjoy this, be sure to follow her on YouTube.
- How to Clean Bird Feeders the Right Way
- Make a Chickadee Nesting Box | Each type of bird needs a unique box design
- How to Build a Nesting Box for Bluebirds | Such pretty birds!
Hallie Tennant is a biological anthropologist and visual artist from Waterloo, ON. She has a BA in Biological Anthropology from the University of New Brunswick and an MA in Bioarchaeology from Western University (London, ON), where she specialized in Egyptian mummy studies. When she’s not playing with dead things, Hallie likes to read, make art, do yoga, and eat peanut butter. She currently lives in Ottawa, ON with her partner in crime and two cats.
PS: Don’t tell Hallie but there seems to be a giant spider nearby!