Feeding Birds By Hand: How To Do It Safely


I honestly can’t think of a better way to connect with nature than to hand-feed wild animals.

In this regard, birds are probably the easiest animals to tame, but that comes with its own risks.

To avoid getting sick or attacked by a bird (yes, that happens), let’s take a look at how these things happen and how to avoid them by hand-feeding the birds safely.

The 2 Risks Of Feeding Birds By Hand

While they may not occur often, there are two major risks of hand-feeding birds.

The illnesses you can contract from birds present the first risk – birds are, after all, wild animals and they get sick easily.

The second risk is bird aggression, which can be caused as a counter-effect of feeding them. This, however, doesn’t pose a great danger.

1. Contracting Avian Diseases

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The biggest danger of feeding birds by hand is contracting one of the avian diseases, such as avian tuberculosis, ornithosis, salmonellosis, escherichiosis, or even the avian flu.

Primarily, these diseases are transmitted through direct contact – be it by touching birds, feces, eggs, or food debris. Avian diseases are difficult to control and it’s impossible for us to know which birds are healthy.

However, you can minimize the chances of contracting these diseases by wearing gloves and washing your hands once you’re done with the hand-feeding.

In rare cases, you can contract diseases from birds even if you protect yourself properly. This is something you have to take seriously, especially if you already suffer from a chronic illness.

2. Birds Can Become Aggressive If They Get Used to Hand-feeding

Even though birds are very careful when it comes to interacting with humans, they can become very comfortable around a specific person with time.

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This is precisely what’s going to happen if you hand-feed birds – with time, they’ll start approaching you even if you don’t have any food on you.

While befriending nature is fine and dandy, it’s possible for birds to get aggressive if you don’t offer them food every time they approach you.

With time, they’ll give up and look for food in other places, but aggressive outbursts are not uncommon with birds that are comfortable around people.

This is often seen with larger birds in parks that are regularly fed by many different people.

There are documented instances of ducks and swans aggressively grabbing food out of people’s hands, such as the case in the video below.

This type of interaction is possible with finches and blue jays that frequent your yard. Once birds know that you won’t harm them, they feel that they can bully you into giving them food.

It’s highly unlikely that a bird can hurt you and it’ll back off quickly when you shake it off.

However, while most birds normally can’t hurt you, you’re messing with mother nature by hand-feeding them and then ignoring them.

How To Safely Feed Birds By Hand

Hand-feeding birds can be broken down into two steps – getting birds accustomed to your presence and actually feeding them.

Follow the steps described below and you should be able to get the birds in your yard eating out of your hand.

Make Birds Feel Safe in Your Yard

Before you get birds to eat out of your hand, they must first feel comfortable in your yard.

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Instinctively, birds fly away at the slightest hint of danger, and if you just put seeds in your hand and start approaching birds, you’ll accomplish nothing.

Therefore, start feeding birds with bird feeders and add a bird bath to your yard to make it even more appealing.

Birds remember the general area where they find food, so you can expect the same birds to keep returning to your yard (with new birds in addition).

During this time, it’d be good if you sat close to the bird feeders (say, about 15 feet). This way, they’ll get used to your presence and realize that you’re not a threat.

You can also put some food on your chair (but not much, as they’ll make a mess), so they get used to looking for food in that specific spot.

Getting the Birds to Approach You

There are a few simple rules to follow. 

Always sit in the exact same spot when the birds are feeding on your bird feeders and always wear the same clothes. It’s easier for birds to recognize you when you’re wearing the same clothes.

Next, you should always wear gloves when doing this, just so you don’t contract any diseases.

You can get the birds used to the gloves by putting the seeds in the gloves and leaving them out – they’ll most definitely eat the seeds and won’t see them as foreign objects anymore.

It’d be great if you kept your pets indoors during this process of acclimation, as they’ll just scare the birds away.

After a week, you can start trying to get the birds to come to you.

To do this, you have to empty the feeders first. No bird will approach a giant, scary human if they have a full feeder fifteen feet away.

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When the feeders are empty, take the food you’ve been putting in them and hold it in your hands. Try to move as least as possible and stay patient. At this point, there’s nothing else to do but wait.

The birds might come to you on your first try, or you might have to repeat this half a dozen times before they do. Fill and empty the feeders in between hand-feeding attempts.

Once you’re done with feeding birds, clean up the debris and make sure to wash your hands.

A Special Tip for Hummingbirds

Since you can’t exactly hold homemade nectar in your hands for hours on end, the best way to attract hummingbirds is by pouring the nectar into a small red bowl.

It’s very important for the bowl to be red, as hummingbirds are naturally attracted to the color because of the plants they’d feed on in the wild.

Leave the bowl out and let hummingbirds feed on it for a week, with you present, before you start taking the bowl into your own hands.

Get Our FREE Bird Feeder Cheat Sheet
Want more birds in your backyard? Get simple tips on attracting feathered friends and maximizing your bird feeding setup. Our free cheat sheet has got you covered!
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James Goodman

James is a native Texan with a love for birding and outdoor adventures. When he's not birdwatching, you can find him hiking, camping or playing the piano.

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