Feeding Birds by Hand

Tips and tricks for getting birds to eat out of your hand.

What’s a bird in the hand worth? Well, you just may have to try this yourself to answer the question. For more than 20 years, I had the privilege of teaching fifth graders how to feed birds from their hands. Over the years, they showed their appreciation by nicknaming me “The Birdman”.

Now I’m retired, but the name has stuck. So, I’ve decided to put on my teaching hat one more time. I think you’ll enjoy this fun lesson—it can be learned right in your backyard. And the only “test” you’ll take will be administered by your feathered friends.

The Colder the Better

For starters, you’ll need to be patient and dress warmly. That’s because the colder the temperature, the better the chances of a bird accepting your offering.

You see, since birds need more fuel to warm their bodies in cold weather, they’re bolder when searching for food. This increases your chances of coaxing one to your hand. Here in Pennsylvania, I can hand-feed birds from October through April. Depending on the climate where you live, you can, too…just follow these basic steps:

  1. Attach a small container or feeder to a tree and fill it with sunflower seeds—the favorite food of friendly chickadees, nuthatches and titmice.
  2. Stock the feeder daily to keep the regular customers coming.
  3. Each day, stand a little closer to the feeder after you’ve filled it. Eventually, the birds will tolerate you standing right next to the feeder itself. Speak softly and gently to the birds as they land on the feeder.
  4. Now, instead of filling the feeder, remove the seed and fill a bowl or coffee mug with sunflower seeds and hold it near the feeder…then wait. Since the birds are accustomed to dining from the spot where you’re holding the container, it’s likely you’ll tempt a friend to hop aboard for a meal.
  5. Once the birds feed from the container you’re holding, you’re ready to try feeding them from your palm. Grab a handful of sunflower seeds and hold your hand flat and steady, right above the empty feeder.


A Matter of Trust

Your first visitor will probably land close by and stare at your offering. Stay calm! It’s tough, but you can do it. Soon, your new friend may flutter above your hand a time or two to test your reaction. When you gain its trust, the bird may quickly snatch a single seed from your open palm and head for the hills. Don’t worry, it’ll come back—and when it does, it may stay longer!

Hand-feeding gives you a rare chance to study a bird “up close and personal”. You’ll notice each species’ colorful markings and plumage, physical structure and unique personality.

Many of my students have said that hand-feeding birds is one of their favorite school memories. To tell the truth, it’s one of my favorite memories, too.

So, what’s a bird in the hand worth? I’ll tell you—it’s priceless!

  1. Carrie Francisco says

    I have been able to feed a few birds by hand and you are right. It is momentous ! I get thrilled each and every time. I have been able to hand feed a Nuthatcher and one I believe was some type of finch. I am not super knowledgeable on types/species of birds. I just love them. I have attempted with others but haven’t been able to yet. I keep hoping. Thanks for the tips, will try them!.

  2. Louise Gagnon says

    Feeding the birds is absolutely priceless…..I’ve so enjoyed doing many many time….I thank a perfect stranger for showing me that I could do it….I was watching him in an apple orchard feeding them….and then he offered me some food and voila….It started me feeding the birds….Love your magazine…

  3. Lynne says

    Oh, I am so excited and cannot wait to try this. Thank you, John Leeser, for a very explicit explanation of how to get closer to our beloved feathered friends. I sit on our deck for long periods of time and a few brave souls will come to the feeders; chickadees, house finches, nuthatches, hummers (they do drink the nectar I put out for them but just quick trips), but the other birds basically just grab a seed or two really quickly and fly off. Great article.

  4. says

    I’ve done something very similar using Hugh Wiberg’s method of successive movement toward the feeder when it’s very cold and early. I’ve found since then that you can do it almost any time you’re willing to take down some feeders, stand still with food and see who’s interested. There’s always a surprise!

  5. Pennie Freet says

    Just started – a particular titmouse came down to my husband’s hand and keeps coming back – in less than a minute when the offer is there. Such fun to watch – but is it safe for the birds to get close to humans, forgetting the surroundings of i.e. cats, hawks, etc?

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