Seeing Eye to Eye with Birds

Hand feeding wild birds

Red-breasted Nuthatch © Debby Kaspari

Your backyard birds can be landing on your shoulder and taking food from your hand this winter. With a little encouragement, some birds will accept you as a natural part of their environment — perhaps even as a friend. It's not difficult to win the trust of the guests at your feeders. Here's how to do it.

Begin by filling your feeders at about the same time every day, preferably in the early morning, when birds actively seek food. It helps to include some cherished treats, such as chopped walnuts or pecans, which many birds cherish. A few smart birds will catch on and show up soon after you visit the feeder.

On a cold morning, stand or sit quietly for a few minutes about 10 to 15 feet away from the feeder after you put out the food. It's OK to talk, and in fact the birds will learn to associate your voice with food, but avoid sudden movements.

Black-capped Chickadee

After a bit of scolding and a few false starts, a bird will come to the feeder. 

Wow! Jackpot!

The first bird gets the treats all to itself. Most likely a chickadee, nuthatch, or titmouse will be your first taker. It's the nature of these inquisitive species to investigate novel food opportunities. Soon others also will come.

Be consistent

Do the same thing on the following days, but stand a foot closer each time. If you don't try to close the gap too quickly, the birds will accept your presence. It's OK to skip a day, or even a week, but the oftener you repeat, the faster the birds will get used to you.

Once the birds are coming to the feeder while you stand right next to it, put your open hand on or right next to the feeder. It's OK to wear gloves, provided they're always the same color. When the birds have become comfortable eating near your hand, remove all the food from the feeder and offer the nut pieces on your palm. Be patient. One of the birds will land on the feeder and take a piece of nut from your hand. It may even hop onto your fingers.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

The first bird that came to my hand was a female red-breasted nuthatch. She landed as easily as if my bare hand were part of a tree. I will never forget how delightfully her tiny toes prickled my skin. The little bird looked up at my eyes. Pregnant seconds passed, the two of us gauging one another. Then she turned her attention to the nuts on my palm. She picked up and dropped several pieces, until she found the one that pleased her best and flew off with it. She tucked it under some loose bark of a tree for safekeeping and came back for another.

The thrill of success

Moments after that first female Red-breasted Nuthatch accepted food from my hand, a male red-breasted nuthatch landed and took some too. Before winter's end, I also hand fed a tufted titmouse, several black-capped chickadees, and a downy woodpecker. When I went outside, birds would often come near in the trees and watch me. If I held out a hand, usually a nuthatch or chickadee would land on it to see what I had to offer. Gradually I expanded the area in which the birds would come to me, until it included most of the backyard.

The time to tame

Western Scrub-Jay

The best time for making progress in this project is early on a cold, sunny morning, especially after an ice storm, which seals away much natural food. Birds will be especially eager at those times to get what you're offering. 

So bundle up, put on warm socks and boots, and go outside. It's a pleasant exercise. As you wait peacefully, you may see the birds in new ways and observe things you never noticed before.

And although winter is a great time, because the birds are eager to find extra calories, freezing weather is not required. My husband Michael and I hand tamed a Western Scrub Jay in Santa Barbara, California. That jay probably never saw snow in its life.

I've also had great luck enticing bluebirds to come to me for mealworms when they were raising young. It's a huge job to keep those hungry mouths fed, and the birds are willing to take a chance on a human who is holding out food.

So any time is a good time to try to win a bird's trust. Whenever it happens to you, it will be summer in your heart.