Fresh-fallen snow shrouds the surrounding conifers, a distant raven’s croak disturbs the calm air as I approach the forest trail. I hear the chatter of chickadees emerging from the thickets. I dig deep into my jacket pocket, pull out a fistful of crushed walnuts, hold out my offering, and they arrive. Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and even a Downy Woodpecker, hopping onto my hand, grabbing a chunk, then flying away. One after another, often without hesitation, and sometimes several at a time, they come to you like an old friend.
So, what is it about feeding a bird from your hand? Why do so many people, from all age groups, find this so delightful?
I’ve seen many smiles, heard much laughter, when a chickadee alights onto a person’s fingers. I see all their cares and troubles vanish, replaced by joy and fulfillment. It’s a connection with nature, with the world around us. It’s the power of dispelling the fear of an innocent creature, to be accepted by something that normally fears us. Whatever it is, for some it has a lasting and profoundly positive effect – good, healthy therapy for the soul.
Here in Ottawa, we have several natural areas where the birds have become accustomed to free handouts. Some people have even trained the birds in their own back yard to come to the hand. Black-capped Chickadees are the easiest to train. In time, Red-breasted Nuthatch gets in on the act. Next to follow is the White-breasted Nuthatch. I’ve even had Downy Woodpecker, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll come to my hand. No doubt, they learned this from the nearby chickadees. Judging by their bold assertiveness, I suspect that some of our local Blue Jays will eventually do the same.
In the book “Hand-feeding Backyard Birds” by Hugh Wiberg, walnuts are a favourite. Pecans, cashews, hulled sunflower and peanuts are also popular menu items.
Training these birds often requires time, patience and a slow, methodical determination. You can’t force them to accept your hand. They are in complete control. But, you have to give the birds some credit. They’re resourceful enough to learn you mean them no harm. Their reward is nutritious food. Ours is a few moments of bonding with nature.