The Ultimate Guide to Hand Feeding Birds: How To Make Feathered Friends

Feeing a nuthatch
Feeing a nuthatch

You may have heard of or have seen someone in your neighborhood or online who has a knack for getting wild birds to eat out of their hand, and you wondered how they managed to lure their feathered friends close enough to do so.

Actually, there’s no real “knack” to hand feeding birds. You just need a method of approach and some patience. I can’t bestow you with the required patience, but I can show you the method.

Preparing to Meet the Birds

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Even before you step out to meet and greet the birds in your backyard, there are a few preparations you should take care of that will make subsequent steps in the hand feeding process easier.

It almost goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that you should have at least one birdfeeder setup in your yard that is supplied with food that the birds common to your area really like. Sunflower seeds seem to be the go-to default for most locations and types of birds, but you may know that something else works better for your situation.

You can start the method outlined below any time of year, but it might be best to take your first shot at it as the weather gets colder, assuming you live in an area where the weather does change significantly through the seasons. If you live in southern California, for example, it probably doesn’t matter when you start weather-wise.

For those of us who do have a definite winter season, this is when naturally found food will become more scarce for the birds. If you keep a feeder stocked daily, birds will come to rely on you as an alternate source of nourishment. As the weather cools, they will become bolder and more willing to accept seeds from you personally.

Hand feeding birds like sparrows
Feeding a sparrow

As I hinted at above, filling your feeder daily and at roughly the same time each day, if at all possible, is a good practice. You may have already noticed that birds are coming to your feeder at about the same times – morning and evening – daily. If so, choosing one of those times to refill may be a great opportunity for you. Essentially, you will be training wild birds to expect your presence at a certain time, and you will be letting them know that your being there is a good thing for them.

One final word to the wise: Keep pets and children who can’t keep still for an extended period of time out of your yard when you implement the steps in the method below. Quick movements almost always scare birds away.

How To Get Close to Your Wild Birds

Here then is the best way to get those little (or not so little) critters to eat out of your hand. Remember that this will take patience and is a process that you will implement over a period of several days, perhaps weeks.

If you plan to do this when the weather is cold, dress warmly. You will be outside for a fair amount of time. It’s no use letting yourself get cold in the process. If it’s really, really cold, skip a day or two.

If there’s a storm, the birds probably aren’t going to come out anyway. You stay instead your home; they’ll stay in theirs until it blows over. As soon as it does though, try to get out there because the birds will be hungry and looking for food.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

On the first day, stand or sit about 15 feet away from your feeder, preferably at a time when you know birds frequent the area. If no birds come to the feeder, you may have to move a little farther – perhaps 5 more feet – away. Stay until your feeder has been visited at least a couple of times.

Talking calmly is okay, even suggested, so that the birds have something in addition to your actual presence to get familiar with. As noted earlier, don’t make any sudden movements though.

Repeat this process every day moving a foot or so closer each day. If you start out by sitting, somewhere along the way – maybe about 5 feet from the feeder – you’ll want to switch to standing.

If you started at 15 feet, note that it will take you a week and a half to two weeks (even longer, if you had to skip a day or two) before you get next to your feeder. And that’s your first goal – to be able to stand next to your feeder and still have birds come to it to eat.

Some birders prefer to wear a glove on the hand that does the feeding. The choice is yours, since birds will eat from a gloved or ungloved hand. If you choose to wear a glove, make sure it is the same one (or at least one that is the same color) each time. Again, the birds will appreciate the familiarity.

After you have birds eating at the feeder while you are standing right there, hold your open palm either next to or on (if using an open box type) the feeder. Don’t put any food in your hand just yet.

After a couple days, remove all the food from the feeder (or simply don’t refill it, if it’s empty), put some in a small bowl (or cup), and hold that in your open hand near the feeder.

After the birds will eat from that container for a few days, eliminate the bowl and offer the food in your palm. If you’ve been talking a little each day while watching the birds, continue to do so as they eat from your hand.

I suppose you could even use both hands for feeding. If you want to try this, I suggest using both open empty palms back in the step where you first got next to the feeder.

There’s still more!

Just as you worked your way close to the feeder day after day at the beginning, now you can slowly move away from the feeder with food in hand and watch the birds continue to come to you. At this point, you might also try filling the feeder again to see if birds will come to both food sources.

Once you have this success, you may not want to or be able to keep it up every day. When you can’t feed them personally, don’t forget to fill the feeder. If you can still feed them in person every few days, at least some birds will probably retain their familiarity with you and eat from your hand without much hesitation.

If you didn’t glove your hand, be sure to wash after each feeding, whether the birds make a “mess” in your hand or not.

What About Hummingbirds?

You can use almost the same method described above to feed hummingbirds. However, since these tiny creatures prefer liquids, you can’t really expect them to eat right from your palm.

The next best thing is to have them perch on your finger as they drink from a hummingbird feeder. Use steps similar to the above to get close to the feeder. Perhaps hold a small twig near their feeder as a perch initially. Then later switch from twig to finger.

If you have further tips or success stories about hand feeding wild birds, please share them with all of us.

If you just want to get a closer look at your wild birds, check out these binoculars for birders.

Gary Sonnenberg

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