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Hand Feeding Birds and Other Bird Fascinations

Max Pixel

Continuing his way through a few of your wildlife-related Curious North questions, the Masked Biologist talks about hand feeding birds – and other related thoughts – in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

In a curious north question from a few months back, Alice asked the question “Does everyone up North feed birds from their hands?”

I suspect this question is asked a little tongue-in-cheek. Obviously, Alice knows not everyone feeds birds from their hands up here. In fact, most people I know do not hand feed birds. But if they did, or if they only did it once, I can promise you they posted it on Facebook.

We humans have a fascination with animals. We spend a lot of money to observe them in the wild, around the world. we feed them in our backyards, even if it is illegal and we know we will face a fine if caught. If we think they are injured, we call a wildlife professional or rehabilitator or maybe we pick them up and try to tend them ourselves. And if we can’t save them, or if we or our pets kill them, we take them out and bury them.

We see stories of people tending animals across cultures and around the world. Birds, especially, seem to connect to our spiritual or other-worldly selves. Relationships between humankind and birds permeate religions, origin stories, fables and folk tales, and more recently fiction and fantasy movies. We name our sports teams, fancy cars, and watercraft after them too. Even our children might be named Drake, Teal, or Talon. 

I believe we humans have an innate desire to take care of animals, and our natural affinity for and connection to birds makes them the focus of our attention. If you manage to hold food in your hand and get a bird to eat it, that means that you have basically found balance between vulnerability and strength. You have earned the trust of a tiny creature that knows you could effortlessly crush the life out of it. They have to sense your calm and witness your patience. Its easy to feed a deer, chipmunk or even a squirrel, but it takes some serious effort to hand feed a bird. If you do hand feed birds, though, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. They can carry parasites and bacteria that you are not ready for, and some like campylobacter or salmonella can make you gravely ill.

So without further eloquence, no, Alice. Not everyone up north feeds birds from their hands. But people around the world do seek to hand feed birds, if given the chance. I remember taking my kids to a fast food restaurant in Iron Mountain MI just because we could take French fries out into the parking lot and feed the seagulls. My brother tells me when he is pier fishing in St. Augustine Florida, there are named pelicans that loiter around fisherman and wait patiently to be given a fresh caught fish from the line.  When we visited the Muir Woods in California, there were Steller’s jays begging for food in the parking lot. A little closer to home here, you can go to the Northwoods Zoo in Minocqua, where you can walk into a bird enclosure, buy a treat stick that you hold out and if you hold real still, you can be covered in affectionate live budgies. If you decide to do that, though, make sure you have a friend take your photo for Facebook!

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

Do you have a question for the Masked Biologist? Submit it below to our Curious North series and it could be featured in an upcoming commentary.


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The Masked Biologist is a weekly commentator on WXPR talking about natural resources and wildlife in the Northwoods. He is anonymous so that he can separate his professional life as a biologist from his personal feelings about the natural world.
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