Hand Feeding Wild Chickadees: This Common North American Backyard Bird Will Eat From Human Hands


Chickadees commonly visit backyard feeders in North America. They travel in small flocks and often fly close to humans. When they are very used to having someone near they’ll take sunflower seeds or nuts right out of an outstretched hand.

When to Start Hand Feeding Wild Chickadees

Entice wild chickadees with nuts and seeds in fall or winter. During spring and summer, pairs are busy nesting and caring for young. Though they may still visit feeders, they’re eating mostly insects, so this isn’t a good time to try to get them to feed from the hand.

Chickadees form flocks from August through February. Each flock has a territory and the birds follow established routes as they search for food; thus, the chickadees visiting a feeder day after day are almost certain to be the same birds. Nuts and seeds form a larger part of their diet as the weather gets colder and there are fewer insects, so this is a good time to get them used to a human presence.

How to Make Chickadees Comfortable Enough to Feed From a Hand

When chickadees visit a feeder regularly, it’s easy to get them used to having someone nearby. Note what time they usually arrive and make a habit of being outside tending the feeder at that time. Be sure to leave items that chickadees particularly enjoy, like black oil sunflower seeds or broken nuts. The chickadees will find the items and likely continue coming back at the same time each day in the hope of finding more:

  1. After a few days, move fifteen to twenty feet away from the feeder instead of going inside. Wait while the chickadees feed, watching them from a distance. Don’t make sudden moves.
  2. Stand a little closer to the feeder each day while the chickadees feed. Let the behaviour of the chickadees indicate whether they feel threatened—they may already be flying very close without apparent alarm.
  3. Speaking quietly lets the birds grow accustomed to a voice, and they may start to come when they hear it, even from some distance.
  4. When the feeder is within reach, begin offering some food on an outstretched palm.
  5. It’s likely the chickadees will be comfortable enough by now to alight briefly and take food right out of the hand, but if they are still reluctant, remove the feeder temporarily to give them no options.

How Chickadees Feed

Chickadees have a social order. Dominant birds get to feed first, then others in the flock take their turn in descending order of dominance. Because of this, expect chickadees in a flock to come for food one by one, select a piece, and immediately leave to eat it elsewhere. Frequently, a bird will alight on a nearby branch and hold a sunflower seed against the wood with its feet while pecking and chiseling with its beak until the hull is opened and the inner seed consumed.

Chickadees also hide food for later, so the birds may disappear with their treasure to cache it in some crack or crevice, and return for more.

Hand Feeding Wild Chickadees in Parks or Woods

Some flocks of chickadees that live in quiet parks or woods frequented by people grow quite accustomed to being hand fed and will approach anyone who holds out a hand. Even those not used to people will come eventually if food is offered regularly in a quiet and non-threatening way. The approach is the same but success will likely require more time and patience.

Dos and Don’ts of Hand Feeding Birds in the Wild

Enjoy this special relationship with wild birds, and keep an eye out for other species besides chickadees. Nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers, and other birds tend to travel with chickadee flocks and may even visit an outstretched hand for their own tidbit of food. Remember birding ethics when interacting with wild birds.

Do:

  • Keep the promise of friendship to the birds and be sure not to frighten or harm them.
  • Be mindful of threats to the birds such as roaming cats and birds of prey, and avoid luring them into harm’s way.

Don’t:

  • Offer old, stale, damp, or moldy seed, or rancid nuts—spoiled food is not good for wild birds and may even kill them.
  • Attempt to feed the birds empty calories like crackers, bread crumbs, cake etc. Stick to nutritious seeds and nuts so that the birds get enough food to keep them warm through cold nights.
  • Interfere with nesting birds.
  • Attempt to capture wild birds.