For the Birds Radio Program: Eating out of your hand

Original Air Date: Oct. 12, 1988

A WOJB listener tells Laura about chickadees that feed from his hand.

Duration: 3′23″



(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Black-capped Chickadees are back at feeders now, fattening up before winter. Last week I received a letter from a WOJB listener with a great chickadee story. He wrote, “(I) have trained chickadees to take sunflower seed from my hands and from my lips and teeth. They seem to tell their friends for when I am in the woods some distance from my home they will light on my shoulder and ask where the food is. Was amazed last week when after not feeding or seeing them since last spring one came to me begging seeds. I had no idea that they would have such a memory– -guess I just have not given them the credit they deserve.”

Chickadees have a reputation for friendliness, and there are many records of them taking food from people, but I’ve never managed to persuade my own backyard chickadees to come into my hands—they flit down right beside me when I fill the feeder, but they just won’t make that final leap of trust to actually light on me. People living in the country have a distinct advantage in this regard. City birds may, as a rule, take people more in stride than country birds, but the boldest overtures of friendliness always seem to come from country birds. It’s possible that in town, where food is more abundant, chickadees simply have no need to approach people. Or maybe they just feel more at ease and outgoing in the country–they way people in Port Wing, Wisconsin, always wave a friendly hi to you as they drive past, but people in Duluth never do.

To me the most phenomenal aspect of chickadees lighting on humans is that they can actually recognize individual people, in spite of the fact that people don’t wear the same clothes, or the same colors, every day. Birds must somehow know to key in on voices or faces. Either way it shows a pretty highly developed sense of discrimination. But after all, chickadees are very intelligent. American ornithologists usually classify the chickadee family near the crow family because the two groups share several physical characteristics, like feathering over their nostrils. And one member of the crow family, the Gray Jay, also known as the Canada Jay or Whiskey Jack, actually looks like a fluffy, oversized chickadee. The crow family is without a doubt the most intelligent family of birds known, and chickadees aren’t far behind. Like other birds that display a great deal of curiosity, chickadees are capable of learning more than birds that mind their own business and live strictly by avian instincts, like warblers. So I’m not too surprised that one of them remembered our WOJB listener over a whole summer.

If you’d like to tame chickadees to come to your hand, you have to be very patient and able to sit still for long periods of time. You’ll have more luck if you live in the country, but I’d sure like to hear from city people who’ve managed to tame their chickadees. I’ve had Boreal Chickadees, Pine Siskins, and redpolls take seed from my hand, but there’s nothing like a friendly Black-capped Chickadee to brighten up a Northland winter.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”