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 suet. Although 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.