Training Wild Birds to Hand Feed

One of the other bird feeding walkers on the trail asked us “Are you the ones who got the nuthatches to feed by hand?”. We responded to the positive, and he asked how we managed that. We gave him a quick rundown on how we did it … while cautioning him that it took the better part of a year to accomplish. Of course he and others will benefit from our patient efforts as, once they learn to trust one human, they’ll transfer that trust to others more easily. Though we’re convinced birds have facial recognition, they’ll still give a stranger with a handfull of seed, the benefit of a doubt.

So, I figure if I’m gonna tell people on a trail how it works, the least I could do is offer that information to our readers as well. So, if you’ve got a bit of patience &/or desire, I’ll tell you how to establish a hand feeding relationship with wild birds.

I always look up a posting subject before I begin a write-up to make sure I’m not just rehashing common knowledge. Most of the sites I perused began with building trust, but I’m gonna take a step back from there to the very start. You might have a favourite trail where you’ve seen/heard birds and want to hand feed them, so I’ll start from a generic beginning, suitable for any location.The first thing you need do, is determine where the birds are, and where you want to feed them. Birds are somewhat less interested in handouts in the dead of Summer compared to Spring, Fall, and particularly Winter. So you should look for a location that’ll be sheltered from the prevailing winds. That’s just for your comfort. However, a chickadee can sit outside at 20 degrees below zero all night long without complaint. So, choose a spot that offers the birds what they ultimately care about too. That would be … not being eaten themselves. A well canopied stretch of trail with alot of shrubbery and undergrowth along it’s edges will provide a sense of safety.

This is the kind of trail for feeding nervous birds

Once you’ve decided where you’ll be feeding them, you’ll need to determine exactly what the birds consider to be food, and establish your chosen location. The kinds of birds you’re looking for are “sight and habit” feeders. This means they have to “see/recognize” their food, and once they do that, they have to return and find a regular, reliable supply of it. They can’t sniff it out if they don’t know where it is, and they won’t eat it if they don’t know what it is. And, God only knows how they decide what they consider to be food. The easiest way to determine what they like is to purchase a small bag of mixed seed, then augment it with every seed you could afford to feed to birds. Pour a few handfulls at your chosen site and leave it. Return from time to time to see which seeds disappeared fastest, and which ones weren’t touched. I can’t tell you how many times we were assured that birds just LOVE this seed or that seed only to have them ignore quite a few dollars worth of it. You’ve gotta determine what the birds on your trail will consider, food. We’ve rescued many a parent on our trail by pouring some hulled sunflower seeds or broken peanuts into their child’s hand as we walk by. That’s when you’ll hear the smartphone cameras clicking.

Obviously this nuthatch prefers peanuts (and a whole one too – Gut Wagon !)

Once you know which seeds they prefer, leave a handfull or two daily, in a location preferably above ground, like on a stump or low branch. Try to be consistent in the time of day as well. If they aren’t all gone within a coupla days, your choice of location isn’t gonna cut it. Find another spot until the seeds go rapidly. Once the birds expect to find them, they’ll start showing up early to “beat the competition”. Let them see you handling the seed so they’ll relate easy food to your presence. Once a crowd starts to gather when you show-up, take your sweet time in providing the seed. Keep your hand open so they can see it, and hold your hand very near or even touching the shrubbery or a tree trunk. They feel safe within the cover of undergrowth or on a tree trunk or branch. Birds will initially take food from your hand if they’re standing on something they trust or have a good escape route.

This is a critical point in their training. If you present seed to them in your hand, and they just sit on twigs looking at you, then … you gotta close your hand, put it back in your pocket, and walk away. I know this seems mean but really, you’re not feeding birds, you’re entertaining yourself, your kids, your grandkids, weekend guests and such. Ten days, ten weeks, ten million years before you started feeding them, what do you suppose they were doing ? Feeding just fine without your assistance, so don’t worry about it, you’re not being cruel. The worst thing you could possibly do is, stand there with an open handfull of seeds for five minutes as they sit there watching you, then pour the contents of your hand out for the birds to eat. All you’ll have taught them is patience, they’ll have learned nothing about coming to you for food.They’ll have learned to just sit there watching that big, hairy, smelly, thing until it drops food and walks away.

Once they’ll take from your hand (while they stand on twigs and such), start holding your hand a little further from the “safety net”. Make them reach for it, then just keep pulling back every few days. Eventually an impatient chickadee will drop the shy act and land on your fingers. Once one does it, the rest will follow suit very quickly. All the fuss will attract nuthatches and Downey woodpeckers, who will eventually land too, by the same methodology. I mention those three, ’cause we get them down on the trail. Though I’ve heard of blue-jays hand feeding, I don’t see it happening to me anytime soon.

Doing this on a return trail allows you to hand feed them going out, and leave seed in preferred locations as you return, to keep them coming back. It is of course, essential that you continue leaving seed for them when you leave. They have to have a reason to come back to that location even after you’re gone (we leave a few handfulls of the cheapest seed they’ll eat, and save the good stuff for hand-feeding).

Here’s another looking over the hulled sunflower selection

The advantage of choosing an “in town” trail or park is that when other people see you leaving seed, someone will inevitably start to do the same (particularly if they see you feeding wild birds by hand). This increases the bird population and activity on your trail, not to mention it’ll save you a few dollars (see –Peanuts are Pricey, Acorns are Free). Also, they don’t care if you’re looking at them or not. I say this as I’ve been told by folks “in the know” that you can’t look at them if you want them to land. That’s not correct. However, for the first few hand-landings, I wouldn’t suggest you launch into a reeling highland fling or nuthin’. Just stand still and silent for the first few times, then start slowly turning your head or softly talking to them as they become more accustomed to you. I’ll warn you not to do this, but you will probably do it anyway. Don’t gasp out loud when the first one lands or you might have to wait awhile before it tries again.

I can’t think of many things more endearing than a prey creature the size of a chickadee, confidently landing on a giant’s hand. The courage and trust required boggles my mind.


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