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Hand Taming Wild Birds – Attracting and Feeding Wild Birds

Frank with black-capped chickadee

Now that bird-feeding season is upon us, I’d like to pass along some thoughts on one of the most pleasurable aspects of this hobby, the hand-feeding of wild birds.  Strange as this may sound, it is actually quite simple to train a number of species to feed from the hand – assuming, that is, that you have patience and the ability to remain still in cold weather!

I was first made aware of the prospect of hand-feeding by a wonderful little book given me by my grandfather, who was always looking for new ways to see animals up close: Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder (Martin, A.G., 1963; Bond Wheelwright Co.: Freeport).  Over the years, I have found that chickadees, juncos and cardinals to be by far the boldest of the typical “backyard birds”.  However the occasional hairy woodpecker, nuthatch or catbird may surprise you with a visit, and the aforementioned book’s author has had success with an incredible range of species.

Keeping your Guests Calm

An important point raised by the author is that you not stare directly at a bird which alights on your hand.  This is good advice, and was borne out in my later experiences working with birds in zoos.  If you want birds to stay close so that you can observe them, don’t stare…they will allow a much closer approach if you use sidewise glances, at least at first.  Birds recognize eyes, and associate a stare with danger, it seems.

An Interesting Twist – an Owl that Fed People

I found it interesting that birds also seem to “know” what a mouth is.  The author makes the point that one ought not “swallow” when a bird is on the hand, lest it fly off.  A screech owl that I  once helped to raise definitely confirmed this.  He was imprinted on people and when ready to breed attempted to offer mice (a traditional owl nuptial gift) to his human friends.  Alighting on a shoulder, he would invariably attempt to jam the mouse in one’s mouth – never in an ear!

The Best Foods to Use

When feeding wild birds, choose a seed mix that contains a wide variety of ingredients (i.e. Scott’s Multi-Bird Blend), so as to attract many species.  A good hand-feeding technique is to offer pieces of suetAlthough often thought of as being specifically for woodpeckers, birds of all kinds crave this high-energy food in winter…its presence in your hand will help to overcome their initial shyness.

The accompanying photo shows yours truly with a friendly black-capped chickadee in hand.


Please see my article Introducing the Turacos (Family Musophagidae), With Notes on an Unusual Individual for a story about a bird that was a bit too habituated to human company.


  1. avatar

    My sister-in-law has had a cokatiel (forgive the spelling ) for almost 20 years in a cage. I thought she could release it since it’s wings are not clipped, and put seed near by in the wooded area next to the house, as I realize there is the possibility that a hawk may get it.What do you think?

  2. avatar

    Hello Jean, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    It would be a good idea to try to give the cockatiel some exercise, but, unfortunately, releasing it outdoors would not be advisable. The bird’s flight muscles will have atrophied after so long in a cage, and, in any event, training a parrot to return to its owner is a long and risky undertaking, best initiated with young, hand-raised birds. Hawks, as you mention, and a great many other hazards, would also present themselves.

    Please write back if you would like to discuss gradually providing the bird with some indoor exercise and flying time. Also, you may wish to suggest an outdoor aviary, which would provide access to fresh air, sunshine and exercise opportunities, without the risk of losing the bird.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    anytng infor taming abt wild caught Shama?

  4. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    I’ve only worked with captive born Shamas, but from experience with similar birds I would say that taming one would be quite difficult unless you provide a large outdoor aviary. In this situation, you could go about it as described in the article for free-living birds. Definitely avoid rushing or trying to get close to the bird, as this will set back the process; it must come to you for food.

    Good luck and please let me know how it goes,

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    how can you tame a zebra finch when you just got one fully grown up

  6. avatar

    Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog. It takes time and patience, especially where an adult bird is concerned. However, it can be done. Please check out this 2 Part article on Taming Finches and let me know if you have any questions.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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