Watching a variety of birds swooping in to eat at a bird feeder is a sight to behold. With patience, time, and a steady hand some birds will eat out of your hand.
Birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, jays, waterfowl, and more will eat from a person’s hand. Smaller birds may perch directly on an open palm, whereas larger birds will snatch food. Some birds learn about human behavior and may begin to trust them as a safe and reliable food source.
Read on to learn about which birds may eat out of our hands, and tips on how to gain their trust.
This article also discusses some potential risks or consequences of feeding wild birds.
Birds That Eat Out Of Hands
Inquisitive and bolder birds may land on a person, eating from their hands. Generally, whether or not a bird will eat from a person’s hand will depend upon the individual bird.
A hand-feeding bird has learned that a particular human can be trusted as a non-threatening food source. They also may only take food from a person in certain circumstances. (More on that below.)
Some species of birds are observed as more willingly accepting of human-offered sources of food.
Keep in mind that larger birds may not perch on your hand, but will snatch it from your fingers, or accept it if your hand is low to the ground.
The following table lists birds that may learn to accept food from a person’s hand. Birds not on this list may also eat from a person’s hand.
The following birds are omnivorous (except for the mourning dove), meaning they eat meat-based protein (insects, small animals) and vegetable matter (seeds, plants).
Note that the hummingbird consumes nectar instead of seeds.
|Bird (Scientific name)
|Type of Food
|Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
|Seeds, nuts, caterpillars, insects
|Gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis)
|Seeds, plants, insects, eggs
|Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
|Seeds, insects, berries
|Nectar, insects, spiders
|Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)
|Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)
|Seeds, berries, insects
|Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)
|Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)
|White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
|Seeds, insects, spiders
|Seeds, vegetable matter, insects
|Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)
|Seeds, human food (bread crumbs, popcorn, etc.), insects, snails, worms
|Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)
|Seeds, corn, millet
|Fruit, nuts, fish, insects, rodents, human foods (crackers, french fries)
|European herring gull (Larus argentatus)
|Fish, eggs, berries, opportunistic feeders (carrion, trash, sewage)
|Seeds, aquatic vegetation, insects, worms
|Seeds, aquatic plants and animals
|Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)
|Seeds, grasses, insects
|Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
|Seeds, berries, insects, caterpillars
Why Some Birds Eat Out Of Your Hand
Certain birds are more curious, seeking out mental stimulation, and therefore more likely to interact with people.
Food-storing birds also have better associative learning and memory skills, leading them to learn about human behavior and food sources.
Birds can learn the facial features or voice patterns of safe people for food access. This can be specific to one person that they have learned to trust, or to an area where people visit (such as a park).
How To Encourage A Bird To Eat From Your Hand
It takes patience and time to help birds understand that you are a safe presence. There are a few things you can try to encourage them to accept food from you.
Note: These tips refer to birds that eat from a birdfeeder. However, for larger birds, such as pigeons and gulls, you may need to offer your hand on a steady surface such as a bench or the ground. They may not land on your hand and opt for plucking food from it instead.
There is some risk when feeding birds, which is discussed later on in this article.
Create an attractive yard or go to a bird-friendly area.
This includes the following features:
- Free of roaming pets
- Places to perch (landscaping decor, outdoor furniture, bird baths, trees, etc.)
- Bird feeder(s) with plenty of food
- Fill the feeder at the same time each day. Sunflower seeds, nyjer seeds, peanuts, and suet are popular with many birds.
Observe And Be Present
Take note of when birds visit your feeder during the day.
Sit or stand very still a few feet from the feeder during this time. This allows the birds to get used to your presence. Move gradually closer over the next few days.
Talk softly to the birds, or read a book out loud so they can get used to your voice.
If you are at a park, you can try the same things by sitting in an area with a tray or pile of seeds nearby.
Over time, you may see that the birds stop hiding in bushes and more freely fly to the feeder when you are present.
Offer Food In Colder Weather
Food is in ample supply during warmer weather. Yet, in areas that have winters, there is less food and birds become scavengers looking for sources.
You may have an increased chance of hand-feeding success during colder times of the year.
Note: Some birds migrate, so the types of birds around during the winter season changes.
Offer An Open Hand
Clean your hands before handling bird seeds to offer a sanitary platform for the birds.
After gaining trust, and birds are eating from the feeder while you are standing near it, try offering seeds from an open hand.
Stand still with a pile of seeds in an open palm extended right next to the feeder.
The birds may continue to eat seeds from the feeder and may pluck one from your hand if the supply in the feeder is low or if they feel safe.
Conversely, before offering a hand, you can try a mug filled with seeds and hold it where the feeder is located.
Perching On Your Hand
After implementing the above tips, reduce the amount of bird seed in the feeder, continuing to offer an open hand.
As the food decreases, your hand will offer a spot that continues to have an ample food supply.
As the bird gets used to your hand near the feeder, it may finally trust you enough to land on it.
If a bird lands on your hand, do not move, make sudden movements, or swallow.
Swallowing is a sign that you are also hungry. You need to continue to show that you are not a threat to the food source or the bird.
Never confine the bird by holding it within your grasp. This will likely make them feel trapped and no longer trust you.
Refill the feeder when you are done. This encourages the birds to continue to eat in that location.
Wash your hands after handling bird seeds as well as any birds that you physically come into contact with.
This video shows a mourning dove and downy woodpecker eating from a hand:
Feeding Hummingbirds By Hand
Hummingbirds do not eat seeds, consuming primarily nectar. However, you can try the above tips in a modified way.
Hummingbirds are attracted to colors such as red, orange, and yellow often because these flower colors contain more nectar. Consider wearing one of these colors to encourage hummingbirds to come close.
Hold a hummingbird feeder in your hand. Hold a finger from the other hand up as a perch next to the bottom of the feeder.
Alternatively, you can hold a container of sugar water in the palm of your hand next to a hummingbird feeder.
This video shows a hummingbird feeding from a hand:
Risks And Consequences Of Feeding Birds By Hand
If you stop feeding a bird from your hand or bird feeder, even with an establishment of trust, the bird typically will not struggle to survive.
Most wild birds do not become domesticated like dogs or cats. Nor will a wild migratory bird stay in cold weather just to eat your seeds.
Their instincts will prompt them to migrate as usual, and if they are winter birds, they will seek out a different source of food. Food-storing birds will continue to store food, even if they eat readily out of your hands.
Generally, feeding birds in your backyard is an acceptable practice if you keep a few things in mind.
There are some inherent risks or concerns when feeding birds by hand. These include the following:
- Do not feed endangered or at-risk birds such as the Florida Scrub Jay.
- Some states prohibit feeding at certain times, since birds can mate and reproduce earlier and then are unable to find food sources, such as spring caterpillars.
- In some states, it is illegal to feed wild birds since the feeders invite other animals, such as deer to rely on inconsistent food sources.
- Do not feed injured or sick birds to reduce the chance of further injury or the spread of illness.
- It is best to contact your local or state wildlife control, wildlife rehabilitator, or wildlife refuge.
- Some birds are aggressive or could become aggressive. Look for posted signs before feeding ducks, waterfowl, and other water-adjacent birds in public areas.
- Hand-fed ducks, geese, and gulls may expect all humans to provide food and may attempt to snatch food even if you do not intend to share it.
- You could potentially end up with a poke or bite from a bird.
- Additionally, when large numbers of people feed these birds, then more birds come to the area.
- This can create traffic or parking issues.
- It also increases the number of bird feces in the area, potentially bringing disease to water-based areas.
- Do not feed birds when there is bird flu in your area. The Asian H5N1 virus is highly contagious amongst birds and can affect domestic birds, such as chickens as well.
- Usually, during these times, people are asked to take down their feeders to help reduce the spread.
- Birds can carry bacteria that negatively affect humans, such as e-coli, on them. Always wash your hands afterward.
- Offer seeds or commercially prepared mealworms (or nectar for hummingbirds) only.
- Offering dead rodents carries the risk of disease as well as the potential for more aggressive birds (and therefore injury) to come to your hands.
Many backyard birds as well as some waterfowl will eat from a person’s hand. This includes birds such as chickadees, ducks, nuthatches, and chipping sparrows.
It takes time, patience, and a steady hand to gain a bird’s trust.
There is some risk of the spread of disease or negative environmental consequences to wildlife when hand-feeding birds.
It is important to know the local and state laws in your area about feeding wild animals, including birds. Always wash your hands before and after handling birds and their food.