Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Feeding Wild Birds By Hand

Dear Bird Folks,

I recently saw a photo of you feeding chickadees out of your hand. Did that really happen or was it a trick? I’d love to know how to get the birds to take seeds out of my hand. Any advice?

– Tyler, Keene, NH

No tricks, Tyler,

That was really me in the photo, but I understand your question. Sometimes I’m forced to use a body double when I go out in public. It’s for security reasons. But this time it was actually me. However, the bird on my hand wasn’t real. Truth be told, it’s an out-of-work actor dressed in a chickadee suit. I saw an actor holding a sign that read, “Will work for food,” so I hired him. He wasn’t happy about receiving a bag of birdseed for his time, but bird food is still food, so he couldn’t argue.

You might think that feeding birds by hand would be a pretty simple thing to do. Just put some seed in your hand, put out your hand, stand still and wait for the birds. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. And like so many things in life, not everyone agrees on which method is best. One guy actually wrote an entire book on this very subject. I’m not talking about a cheesy pamphlet either. It’s a very real 144-page full-color book, with a very real price tag of $20.00. And if that wasn’t enough, somebody else produced a series of seven (that’s right, seven) videos at ten bucks a pop (that’s right, ten bucks) on hand-feeding birds. Now I’m not opposed to people selling things for money. I’m actually a big fan of that. But charging $70.00 to show someone else how to get birds to eat from his or her hand doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t that be one of those things in life that’s free, passed down between generations and not sold on eBay? It’s like writing a book on how to appreciate rainbows or making a movie on the best ways to enjoy the smell of freshly baked bread. It’s not something to be sold. However, if after reading this column, Tyler, you feel compelled to send me a check for $70.00, I’m totally okay with it.

The key component in getting birds to eat out your hand is patience. This is not one of those activities you should try five minutes before you have to leave for work. In fact, if you have a job at all this might not be the activity for you. It takes a fair amount of time for the birds to learn that you are the person who is bringing them food and not the person who wants to bake them in a pie. The first step is to put out a single bird feeder. If you use more than one feeder (and well you should), take all but one of them down. This will focus all of the birds’ attention on one place in your yard. Next, only fill the feeder with enough food to last a single day and refill it each morning at the same time. It’s important that the birds see you as the person who serves them breakfast. When I fill my feeder in the morning, the birds are waiting for me. They all chirp with excitement, wag their tails and look at their watches, wondering what has taken me so long.

Once you’ve filled the feeder you should drop back about twenty feet or so, stand perfectly still and just watch the birds eat. After about ten minutes of standing still, slowly back away and get on with your day (as if that’s possible after all the excitement). Repeat this same thrilling event for the next few days. After you’ve gotten a sense that the birds are comfortable with you, shorten your standing distance to fifteen feet, then to ten feet and so on. The point of all this is to slowly allow the birds to get used to your presence. This process should not be rushed. It’s best to move closer in small steps, over an extended period. Also, remember to stand totally still. Don’t even move your head. And most importantly, don’t wear a trench coat while you are standing out in the yard. The birds won’t care, but you might alarm your neighbors.

Eventually, you should be standing right next to your feeder and the birds (with any luck) will continue to come. Now you are ready to make your move. (I know this sounds like your first date in high school, but hopefully in this situation you’ll be more successful.) Instead of filling the feeder on this particular morning, leave it empty and place your hand, filled with food, on the feeding perch. If everything goes as planned, the birds will land on the feeder, find that it’s empty and move on to plan B, which is your hand. Here’s where you have to be the most stoic. You can’t recoil, flinch or jump in any way or you’ll startle the birds and will have to start from the beginning. FYI: you should probably forget the espresso and drink decaf that day.

There are few sensations in the world better than having the tiny feet of a songbird land on your hand. But as wonderful as it is, there are some folks who frown upon it. They feel that wild birds should stay wild and getting them to trust humans is not the best thing. I understand their point but I’m not sure I agree. I defy anyone to have a songbird land on his or her hand and not gain a sense of just how delicate and fragile these little birds are. It’s a life experience worth having. It’s right up there with seeing rainbows and smelling freshly baked bread.

Finally, Tyler, it’s essential to fill your hand with food that birds are really attracted to. As usual, I recommend using sunflower seeds. Another writer suggests using shelled peanuts instead, but I’d worry about squirrels. The last thing you want is a hungry squirrel climbing up your leg and sniffing for nuts…if you know what I mean.