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!