Wild birds often fly away at the first sight or sound of a human, even when you mean no harm. This can be frustrating if you’re looking to spend time getting to know wild birds.
So, why are wild birds scared of humans?
Wild birds are so scared of humans because they perceive any sudden, unknown sound or sight as a potential predator, and they aren’t used to the presence of humans in most cases. In environments where birds are accustomed to humans, they aren’t so scared.
Do Wild Birds Think Humans Are Predators?
Birds are prey animals, meaning that predator species hunt them. Because of this, any unfamiliar noise or quick movement will cause a bird to enter fight-or-flight mode as if there were a predator nearby.
In bird habitats where humans are rare, the sound of a human voice or sight of a person is unfamiliar. As a result, it can come across as frightening and potentially predatory.
Additionally, some behaviors, like looking directly at a bird, will increase the likelihood that you’re read as a predator.
Spending too much time near the nest will have a similar effect, and so much, so that wild birds have been known to abandon their nests after a human disturbance out of self-preservation.
You can see a difference in how birds in urban and rural populations respond to humans because of their different familiarity levels.
In urban areas, birds become accustomed to human behavior and aren’t so easily startled.
In rural areas, birds aren’t used to seeing humans and will be more likely to fly away when they see or hear a person.
The results of one study suggest that burrowing owls even inherit their level of fear towards humans from their parents.
Although there are many reasons why this could be the case, one possibility is that some birds are more easily spooked by potential predators in general, including humans.
Potential predators of wild birds include:
- Cats, both domestic and feral, are one of the most dangerous predators to birds, killing between 1.3 and 4 billion wild birds every year.
- Chipmunks and squirrels will eat injured birds. Gray Squirrels have a history of eating bird eggs as well.
- Birds of prey like eagles, owls, and hawks will eat small and large birds, including songbirds and ducks, pigeons, and doves.
- Snakes eat both birds and their eggs.
- Deer are usually herbivores, but White-tailed Deer are notorious for eating young wild birds.
- Insects will hunt birds. For example, Praying Mantises will stalk and hunt hummingbirds.
- Raccoons are known to eat bird eggs.
- Frogs, particularly large species that live in the rainforest, will hunt birds.
- Tarantulas that are large enough will eat birds.
- Dogs and coyotes are also known hunters of birds.
Some birds, like turkeys, are also hunted by humans and may respond with fear to humans. They can even recognize signs of fear in other animals, like deer, and respond by fleeing.
How Do Birds Respond to Other Threats?
Birds are territorial because there are limited resources available, and they need to make sure they’ll be able to find food, water, shelter, and sites for nesting.
Some birds are more social than others, so they may or may not share territory with others.
Birds may or may not choose to defend their territory from others depending on whether they’re perceived as a threat to their resources.
For example, a robin will scare away other robins and allow other bird species who do not share their diet to forage in the same area.
Usually, the way that birds defend their territory is non-offensive to humans. However, birds may physically attack if they perceive a threat to their young.
The most common ways birds respond to territorial threats include singing, drumming, creating visual displays, and chasing. Here’s what that means:
- Birds sing to alert others that an area belongs to them, usually singing loudly at the boundary of their territory. This works to push away potential threats to their territory from a long way away. Additionally, these songs work to attract mates.
- Alternatively, birds like woodpeckers will create a drumming sound by pounding on a tree at the edge of their territory, having much of the same effect as singing.
- Visual displays are a way that birds can claim territory in a short range. These displays usually include puffing up the feathers, spreading the wings, and flicking or fanning their tail. These displays, like singing, also help to attract a mate.
- If none of these strategies works, a bird will resort to chasing competitors or intruders out of its territory. In fact, a parent bird will even chase away their own offspring once they’ve matured out of territorial instinct.
How To Be Around Wild Birds Without Scaring Them
There are ways to spend time around birds without scaring them away, whether you’re simply looking to birdwatch or you want to be close enough to wild birds to make contact.
If you want to spend time watching birds in the wild without scaring them away, there are several things you can do to make them more comfortable with your presence.
- Wear dark, camouflaged colors to prevent birds from seeing you.
- Use binoculars so that you can watch from a distance.
- Move slowly and speak softly to avoid making startling noises.
- Keep your distance from nests.
- Use a bird hide or observation tower to stay out of sight.
These things will keep you from coming across as a predator, allowing you to take in natural bird behavior without startling them away.
In some cases, you can coax wild birds to perch on your hand by offering food. To do this, you need to make sure that the birds feel safe both with you and with the environment overall.
Try following these steps if you want to feed a bird from your hand:
- Clear the area of any pets like dogs or cats.
- Stand near trees or brush so that the birds have a safe place to go. Often, birds will fly back and forth between your hand and the safe place.
- Try feeding birds in the morning when they’re already looking for food.
- Stand close to the birds at first so that they become comfortable with you before you try feeding them.
- If possible, build trust and comfort with the birds over a period of days.
- Hold the food in your hand away from your body, and never hold out an empty hand.
- Stay as still as possible when holding your hand out. Even swallowing can be a signal to them that you are a predator.
Once you’ve earned the trust of one bird, others are likely to follow! Be patient as you work your way towards feeding wild birds; some birds are also more likely than others to take food out of your hand.
Try feeding these species next:
- Downy Woodpeckers
- Blue Jays
Always remember to wash your hands after making contact with a bird, and never try to catch a wild bird to take in as a pet. That’s because catching a wild bird is illegal in most cases under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Are Humans a Threat to Wild Birds?
Although birds are not aware of it, there are several very real ways humans are a threat to birds. These include habitat destruction, degradation, disturbance, and fragmentation.
All of these issues are tied to the expansion of human populations into areas where birds previously thrived, especially grasslands and forests.
Because of these threats, 92 bird species are listed as either threatened or endangered through the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and another 274 species are listed as threatened by the Birds of Conservation Concern.
Wild birds are scared of humans because they are unfamiliar with humans and think they might be predators.
By wearing camouflage, waiting quietly, and taking time to earn trust, you’ll be able to spend time watching or even feeding birds without scaring them away.