Give backyard birds a hand

Not all birds migrate. Some stick around all winter, when food is scarce. So if you want a real first-hand encounter with nature, try hand-feeding birds in your backyard.

Hugh Wiberg, author of "Hand-feeding Backyard Birds" (Storey Publishing, 1999) hand-fed his first bird 30 years ago. Here are a few tips from his book:

The best time to feed birds is October through March. In late spring and summer there are just too many bugs and worms around for birds to be bothered with humans. But when the weather is cold, birds are happy to get food wherever they can.

First, get a good supply of bird food. (Wiberg recommends nuts and sunflower seeds.) Hang a bird feeder in your yard. This will bring a steady supply of birds into your yard for a free meal. Next:

1. Dress warmly. You will be standing still a long time outdoors.

2. Pick a spot near the feeder and stand there. Don't move. Stay for a half hour or so. "Be prepared to be patient," Wiberg says. "Think of hand-feeding birds as a process, not as an event. To succeed, you will have to summon all of your reserves of patience and perseverance." Do this a few times over the course of two weeks.

3. During the third week, move closer to the bird feeder. Stay still.

4. "Become" the feeder. Put seeds in your hand, then put it on the feeder.

5. Remove the feeder altogether and stand or sit with the seeds in your palm. Because you are the only food supply, it is likely that the birds will soon get over their shyness and come in for a bite.

"Most people will be able to get a bird in their hand within four to five weeks of conditioning them," Wiberg says in a telephone interview. "After a while, they become your pets," he says. "Not everyone will be motivated to try this, but it is a wonderful project."

Anyone can do it: At 18 months, Wiberg's granddaughter Alexis was hand-feeding a black-capped chickadee.

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