Want to hand-feed wild birds? These tips walk you through a plan to gradually build trust and offer seed in the palm of your hand. Before starting, be certain it is legal to feed wildlife and the species are not at risk. And be sure it’s safe for both you and the birds.
For the top recommended bird feeders, seed, and supplies, also see The Complete Guide to Feeding Birds.
Is it Legal to Feed Wild Birds? Or Ethical?
Before we get into the tips for hand-feeding wild birds it is important to acknowledge that feeding any wild animals is a controversial topic.
Any time we insert ourselves into the lives of animals in the wild there is potential for causing more harm than good.
Feeding wild birds is no exception. And hand-feeding wild birds may be, as some view it, potentially too disruptive to natural behaviors.
Step one is to find out if feeding birds is legal in your area. It is often illegal in government-controlled parks and recreational areas. There may also be local bylaws which forbid or monitor it for undesired side effects like attracting rodents or bears.
In this article at the Audubon Society, When It’s Okay (Or Not) to Feed Birds, they suggest asking these three questions before feeding wild birds:
1. Is this species at risk? If so, do not feed them: they need their natural habitat and food sources to survive and thrive long-term.
2. Is the food appropriate and safely provided? Offer bird feed as close to the natural diet as possible is best.
3) Is feeding this bird likely to change its behavior in harmful ways? When wild animals change their natural behaviors to focus on human interventions, trouble begins.
It is up to you to answer the big questions before you do or do not proceed.
For me personally, my experience with hand-feeding evolved quite naturally.
I have always used bird feeders to attract birds to the garden and, being an avid gardener who spends a lot of time outdoors, there are always frequent visitors (birds) that clearly know and trust me.
Over the years I have had several instances of birds landing on my head, shoulder, or hand, simply as a resting spot.
I’ve also had birds land on my hand when I’m carrying bird seed to the feeder.
It’s those things that transitioned into intentionally hand-feeding the birds.
It’s a wonderful experience and one I feel lucky to have.
But, I also intentionally take feeder breaks throughout the year, as preventative medicine more than anything else.
We’re in Ontario, Canada and quite a few species of birds have either landed on me (without any food available) or hand fed when I am carrying seed to the bird feeders.
Once they get to know and trust you, blue jays are good at catching tossed peanuts as well.
Hummingbirds can be very tame and curious and may take nectar from a hand feeder.
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These tips are helpful if you are starting from scratch and you and your garden birds have no previous hand-feeding experience.
You may also want to check if there are areas local to you where birds are known to hand-feed which speeds up the process.
The best time of year to try is from late fall to early spring when the weather is cooler and food sources are scarcer.
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. And grow organically, of course.
- 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
- 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.
- We like Brome Squirrel Buster Feeders to keep the squirrels out.
- Offer just enough seed for the day so the feeder is empty the next morning.
- 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) Offer High Quality Treats
- 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 favorite 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) Gradually Introduce Yourself
- Once the birds are used to seeing you around while they eat, stand a little closer to the feeder each day and stay as long as you can.
- 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.
- Keep as still as you can and avoid any sudden movements or loud sounds.
5) Talk to Your New Friends
- Speak to the birds in a soft, relaxed tone of voice to help them acclimatize to you and—even better—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: it soon seems natural.
6) Be Consistent
Don’t be a Stranger
- Visit often—the more you’re in the garden, the better they get to know you. I think that’s why I’ve had so many birds voluntarily land on me and let me come so close.
- Never follow them: when they move away, let them go. You don’t want to do anything that seems predatory.
7) Start Offering Your Hand
- Once your birds are comfortable with you standing nearby while they feed, start holding your hand out while you watch them. Wear gloves if you prefer.
- 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.
8) Offer Treats With Your Hand
- Once they are used to eating near you, place a few of their favorite 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. This could take days or weeks depending on the relationship you have established.
- 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.
- Be ready for the experience: it feels funny to have bird feed grabbing onto your hand—but don’t jump and spoil the experience.
9) Avoid Strange Movements
- Behave consistently: no sudden movements or noises. Sneezing or a sudden gesture may set your progress back to the start.
- It’s their instinct to flee to ensure their own survival, so keep calm and carry on.
10) 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.
Lesley the Bird Nerd has wonderful videos showing various birds that hand-feed.
If you enjoy this, be sure to follow her on YouTube.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
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How to Hand Feed Wild Birds
Supplies & Materials
- 1 cup Black oil sunflower seeds
- 1 cup Peanuts
- 1 cup Pecans
- 1 cup Walnuts
- Create a bird-friendly environment with flowers, trees, and shrubs. Grow organically and keep pets indoors. Do not wear any perfumes or other fragrances.
- Start a feeding schedule based on the birds' own habits. Fill your feeders with just one day's supply of food each day.
- Offer high quality treats like chopped walnuts, pecans, or peanuts.
- Keep your distance on day one. Start 10 to 15 feet away and get a little closer each day while the birds dine at the feeder.
- Try talking to the birds, getting them comfortable with your voice.
- Be consistent: feed them every day, stand a little closer every day, use your voice every day.
- At some point you'll be ready to start extending your open palm while they're eating. Keep your arm supported, stay in place as long as you can, and always move slowly.
- Transition to offering the food from your hand instead of filling the feeder.
- Don't worry about setbacks: one sneeze can send them flying! Just get back to it the next day, perhaps at a distance and move closer each day until they will eat with you standing right there.
- Stick with it. If you see progress, they are trusting you and will eventually eat from your palm.
- When the moment comes, be ready. Most people jump or make a noise the first time and that scares the bird away. Imagine it happening ahead of time and control your reaction. It is magical and brings a giddy feeling but you need to keep it on the down low.