Hand Feeding Birds

Our Hand Feeding Birds Guide: A Nurturing Connection

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We’ve all likely seen pictures online of songbirds eating out of people’s hands or watched someone open up an old bag of bread and offer it to pigeons or waterfowl. You may have even fed birds by hand yourself.

The idea of hand-feeding wild birds can often result in a hearty debate, even internally. Is it ethical and safe to feed birds from a human hand?

Some people will say you should never feed a bird by hand, others will see no issue with it, and some people’s feelings fall right in the middle, sometimes changing on a case-by-case basis. Let’s talk through this potentially controversial topic.

What Are the Ethical Considerations for Feeding Birds by Hand?

When making any decision considering wildlife like birds, the main consideration should be the health and safety of the wildlife potentially being fed as well as humans.

It’s well-established that certain animals should never be fed. Most of us would probably agree that we shouldn’t feed wild animals like raccoons or bears for fun. The phrase “a fed bear is a dead bear” comes to mind, especially in areas near National Parks, where both black bears and grizzly bears have been relocated or killed after becoming too habituated to humans.

Other species spark more debate. The merits of deer feeding bans in certain areas due to the potential spread of chronic wasting disease, a fatal disease that affects wild cervids, is fiercely argued by hunters and wildlife enthusiasts.

As for birds, some species are more vulnerable than others. We certainly wouldn’t feed birds like owls, but it’s common practice for people to put out bird feeders for their backyard songbirds. It’s a fun way to interact with birds and see more from the comfort of our homes and property, and it provides a source of food for birds and squirrels alike. What’s not to like?

Putting up feeders is generally accepted, but not by everyone. Susan Morse, a writer/editor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote that feeding wild bids “raises ethical questions.”

According to an article on Nature.org, cardinals are among the birds whose range has extended further north in North America since they can find food throughout the year, even in cold places, and Cooper’s hawks are less likely to migrate now, in part due to the abundant songbirds they can find throughout the winter.

Is this such a bad thing? Depends on who you ask. Some will say that bird feeders are altering birds’ behavior, while others, like the Nature.org author Matthew L. Miller, will point out that we’ve lost billions of birds in the past five decades, but numbers of birds that often visit like cardinals have more stable population trends than others that may not visit feeders.

Morse writes for fws.gov that the risks to birds increased by bird feeders include disease, predation, and collisions.

These risks can be reduced by cleaning feeders and the discarded seeds below them frequently, moving feeders to within three feet of windows and covering windows with protective decals to limit collisions, and taking feeders down if predators like cats or hawks begin to stake them out, putting songbirds at a disadvantage.

Again, despite some people’s questions, it’s pretty generally accepted by most that putting up feeders is OK. Feeding a bird by hand is just a little different than using a feeder, however.

Why Is It Different Than Using a Feeder?

The biggest difference between feeding birds through a feeder and out of your hand is the close association with humans. Feeding a bird through a feeder is obviously associated with humans, but not to the degree that birds become so familiar with us to feel comfortable coming into physical contact with a human.

One important question asked by the National Audubon Society’s Melissa Groo about the ethics of feeding any particular bird: “Is feeding this bird likely to change its behavior in harmful ways?”

Groo goes on to write that hand-feeding a sunflower seed to a chickadee in a park is probably not likely to put that bird in danger by exposing it to hunting or altering its migration, but that isn’t always going to be the case for all species in all locations.

There’s also the potential for disease to spread between people and birds. The potential for disease to spread between birds is significant, even at feeders, as it is an area frequented by lots of birds and can be a hotbed for bacteria. This is why it’s important to clean feeders frequently.

Avian influenza (bird flu), West Nile virus, and avian tuberculosis are among the bird diseases that can be spread to humans, according to the University of Florida.

Feeding certain birds like ducks and geese unnatural foods like bread in parks can not just cause them to be too comfortable around humans, it can also have serious effects on their health, including the development of angel wing syndrome, a condition that renders them flightless.

The sight of a pigeon or duck accepting a bread handout is not uncommon. It’s rare to get a songbird to become comfortable enough with you to eat from your hand, but in certain places, it’s the norm.

Places Where Feeding Birds by Hand Is Common

Feeding a Great tit by hand

In certain parks around the world, birds have become used to eating from humans’ hands. Take Kensington Metropark northwest of Detroit, for example. Michigan birdwatchers will be familiar with the park, known among birders as a park where birds are particularly likely to eat out of hands.

Birders flock to the park to feed black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches in the park. Sunflower seeds can even be purchased at the park’s Nature Center, Pure Michigan states.

Does this change the ethics of feeding birds, if it’s in a location where birds are already accustomed to it?

Like the entire debate about hand-feeding wild birds, it’s subjective. I’d personally say that in cases like these, the conversation is a little different.

Birders at Kensington are not allowed to feed larger birds like turkeys and sandhill cranes as that can cause bigger problems, and feeding bread or other human carbohydrates to waterfowl still should be avoided, but handing seeds to a chickadee in a park where they frequently take food from humans isn’t going to cause serious problems.

So, Is It OK or Not?

In the end, it’s probably OK to feed some wild birds in certain situations if they’ll take to your hand.

Don’t feed endangered birds or birds that could be put at risk by hand feeding, whether that’s due to health concerns like angel wing in waterfowl, hunting risk, or something else.

Some birds will respond better to being fed by hand, such as chickadees or the occasional hummingbird. You’re not likely to get many birds to stop at a hand, anyway,

Each case is a little different. Ultimately, feeding a couple of chickadees here and there at your home is not likely to cause problems for those birds, for example. If you choose to feed birds by hand, make sure to do it in the right way.

Don’t offer your backyard birds unhealthy food like bread – stick to standard bird food like sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, nuts, and the like. And don’t expect them to show up right away to take food from your hand. It’s going to take some serious patience.

You’ll have to stand in an area where birds are accustomed to seeing you and stand very still with your offerings, holding them out on a flat hand.

Wash your hands with warm water and soap before and after coming into contact with birds, as this can help reduce the spread of illness one way or the other.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is It OK To Hand-Feed Wild Birds?

Whether it’s OK or not to feed wild birds is a personal decision that may even be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Certain birds are not OK to feed by hand, like birds of prey or vulnerable and endangered birds. It’s also not advisable to feed birds unhealthy foods by hand, such as bread to ducks or geese at the park, as it can cause health problems for the birds.

Some people will feel that hand-feeding birds is never OK, but others will feel that in certain occasional situations, it’s not the worst thing. For a couple of chickadees or titmice here or there in your backyard, you’re probably fine in this writer’s opinion.

What Birds Are Most Likely To Eat From Your Hand?

The most likely backyard birds to visit your hand are small birds like black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, or red-breasted nuthatches and white-breasted nuthatches.

Hummingbirds may also get close enough to eat nectar from your hand. With any bird, patience is of the utmost importance. Even with the species most likely to approach humans, it’s likely to take a great deal of time to get them comfortable enough with you to eat from your hand.

What Birds Should You Not Feed by Hand?

You should not feed birds by hand if it puts them at risk for future problems. For example, it’s discouraged to feed birds of prey or larger birds that may become aggressive if they feel food is at stake.

You should also not feed birds by hand in places where it’s against the rules, which includes many public parks and green spaces.

One of the most common ways that people feed wild birds by hand is by giving bread to ducks and geese, which should be avoided due to both the birds’ habituation to people and the risk of the birds developing angel wing syndrome, which can leave them flightless.

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