How to Get Wild Birds to Trust You

When we feed wild birds in our backyards we usually just watch them from our kitchen window or maybe sitting on our back porch drinking some tea or coffee, but will they let us get closer? Have you ever wondered how to get wild birds to trust you enough to possibly even hand feed them? Yes, it can be done and with some patience it may not be as difficult as you think.

Can you gain a bird’s trust?

If you can integrate yourself into a bird’s daily feeding routine, then yes you can gain a certain trust level from wild birds. The only trust we are really looking for here is for the birds to be comfortable around you and possibly even eat out of your hand, which is very possible.

Can you tame a wild bird?

robin sitting in a person's hand

In the sense that you can help them become used to you and your presence then yes. Taming them to the point where they can become a pet, then no. They are called “wild birds” for a reason, they are wild. As I went over above, we can certainly gain some birds’ trust with some patience and a peace offering (food) but beyond that may be far-fetched.

Do wild birds recognize humans?

There have been studies done with pigeons and crows that suggests they do recognize individual people (source). As far as other types of backyard birds you see at your feeders, I would expect similar results if studies were done but I don’t know.

I also thought I’d throw in this video of a goose that was rescued by a man who then let it go at a local lake. Now every time he takes his boat out the goose sees him and flies alongside the boat. Maybe it’s coincidence and the goose does this with all boats, but maybe it somehow knows it’s his rescuer. I like to think it’s the latter.

 

How do you hand feed wild birds?

First your birds need to feel safe in the environment they are feeding in, then they need to feel safe with you in that environment. Eventually they will come to think of you as part of their habitat and it won’t be a big deal to take food directly out of your hand.

Just because it can be done though doesn’t mean it can be done easily. If you just walk out into your yard with a handful of sunflower seeds going “here birdie birdie” you can expect failure. Follow the tips below to ensure your best chance of getting birds to eat directly from the palm of your hand.

  1. First you want to make sure that your yard is clear of any pets. Dogs and cats are known to chase birds and make them nervous so that’s your first step. Rid your yard of pets.
  2. You also will want to make sure that your avian friends have plenty of trees nearby for cover. They like to dart back and forth between the safety of trees and if they don’t have that safety available they may not take the risk of eating out of your hand.
  3. Be predictable and fill your feeders at the same time each day, preferably in the mornings when most birds are all actively looking for food.
  4. After you’ve filled your feeders in the morning, stand back about 10-12 feet from them for 5-10 minutes and let the birds get used to you being there. You will do this for several days in a row.
  5. As this becomes part of your routine (and the birds) you will want to stand a step closer than the day before slowly allowing them to get used to you being in their “feeding zone”. If you think that you’ve moved forward too quickly and they aren’t responding well, then take a few steps back and start over. This process is where you slowly gain their trust, it takes time and patience so don’t rush it.
  6. The birds will slowly become used to you being in the environment where they feed and look at you as a part of that environment. This is what you want.
  7. Once you feel like they are becoming comfortable with you near the feeders, try holding some food in your hand and holding it out away from your body. This part may also take some time so again, be patient. Never hold your hand out empty, only with seed or food in it. Holding out an empty hand might cause them to see you as something other than a food source undoing the work you’ve done.
  8. Once the first bird works up the nerve to land on your hand and get a bite, others will likely follow.
  9. Remain as still as possible when holding your hand out and standing near the bird feeders, don’t even swallow. Swallowing may look like a sign that you plan on eating them! Hold your breath if they land on your hand and be very statue-like. Birds are nervous creatures by nature and the slightest movement can look threatening so never close your hand or move your fingers if you are lucky enough to have one land on your hand.
  10. Last tip is to not overfill your feeders. If they have an overabundance of food from a known safe food source they may see no reason to experiment with an unknown, unverified food source such as a human hand that may or may not close on them when they land on it.

What birds are known for eating out of your hand?

bird in hand

You already know that there are dozens of species of birds that will visit your backyard at various times of the year, but which ones will eat from your hand? Well it depends on a few different factors like what you are offering and just the nature of the bird itself. Some birds just may not ever be trusting enough to land on a person’s hand, or at the very least would be very unlikely to. Here are a few species that I’ve seen on various videos, images, and posts around the internet that have fed from people’s hands.

  • Chickadees
  • Nuthatches
  • Hummingbirds
  • Cardinals
  • Downy Woodpeckers
  • Titmice
  • Robins
  • Sparrows
  • Blue Jays

Can you get sick from touching wild birds?

Yes, humans can catch diseases and viruses from birds. Humans can also catch diseases and viruses from other humans and thousands of other species as well. It seems like most have to do with fecal matter contact or ingestion. If you are just letting a bird land on your hand for a minute to eat some seeds the risk is fairly low, but it’s still a good idea to wash your hands immediately afterwards.

Below are a few diseases or viruses that you may have heard of that are technically possible to catch from a bird. If you want to see more, here is a list of over 60 transmissible diseases that birds can carry.

Bird diseases humans can catch

  • Salmonella
  • Avian Influenza
  • E.coli
  • Histoplasmosis

Never try and catch a wild bird

Hopefully it goes without saying that you should never try to catch a wild bird. In fact The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal in most cases without a permit. Even if you think you are helping them, don’t. If a bird is sick or injured you should call a wildlife rehabilitation center and ask them what to do.

The only exceptions to this rule that I’m aware of is for House Sparrows and European Starlings. Both of these species are exotic, invasive and aggressive towards other birds and the same laws do not apply to them.

 

2 thoughts on “How to Get Wild Birds to Trust You”

    • Hi Samantha – I don’t think clothing matters too much. Colors to make you blend in are good if you want to “hide” and view a bird without them seeing you, but in this case you aren’t trying to hide. Birds are often attracted to bright colors, so color alone won’t scare them off. It’s all about getting them used to your presence, getting them to trust you, and enticing them with some food. Time, patience, exposure, and moving very slowly. Good luck!

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Sign up to our mailing list and join over 500 other birders!