We often think of the winter months in Ohio as a cold, dark time when animals hibernate and birds flee south for the winter.
But if you’ve actually ever been outdoors in the forest in the winter, you’ll know that it’s most certainly NOT devoid of wildlife! In fact, northeast Ohio has a lot of birds and other critters that stick around through the coldest months.
And you can get to know some of our winter birds in a very unique way at one Cleveland Metropark: by feeding them straight out of your hand!
Hand-feeding chickadees at Brecksville Nature Center
The tradition of hand-feeding chickadees and other birds is an old one at the Brecksville Nature Center in Brecksville Reservation. The tradition goes back to at least the 1940s, not long after the historic Brecksville Nature Center was built by Works Progress Administration (WPA) craftsmen in 1939.
The program is officially called “Hand Feed a Chickadee” since the little black-headed birds are abundant here and fairly fearless when it comes to taking seeds right out of your hand.
But other bird species like the tufted titmouse and white-breasted nuthatch are sometimes brave enough to hop into your palm, too!
The Hand Feed a Chickadee program is a winter one, usually running from December through the end of February. These are months when the weather is coldest, meaning the birds need to eat more to stay warm.
There’s a dedicated area for feeding the birds just to the left of the Nature Center, marked by a wooden fence.
In “normal” years, this program is officially run by the Nature Center on weekend mornings, when they supply black oil sunflower seeds and a naturalist will give you some tips on how to feed the birds. But the Nature Center is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The good news, however, is that the birds don’t know about the closure. You can bring your own bird seed (black oil sunflower seeds are what’s recommended) and feed the birds whenever you want.
Tips for getting birds to eat out of your hand
The birds around the Brecksville Nature Center are already conditioned to hop into warm hands to grab a snack, which is why it’s so easy to do here but probably nearly impossible to do at home.
But, just because the birds around the Nature Center are inclined to hand-feed doesn’t mean you’ll be swarmed by birds as soon as you stick you hand out (which is probably reassuring for anyone who is afraid of birds!).
Here are some tips to help you have the best hand feeding experience:
1. Go on a cold, snowy day
Birds need to eat more to stay warm when it’s cold, and are more likely to go for an easy meal out of your hand when snow on the ground makes it harder for them to forage.
My husband Elliot and I went on a cold day in mid-February when there was snow on the ground and some snow flurries about, and there were tons of birds flitting around!
(Just note that cold, snowy weekend days bring out more people to try this, too. In our current COVID era, be sure to respect social distancing, and pack a mask just in case.)
2. Bring the right food
We saw people armed with all sorts of different types of birdseed, nuts, and even dried corn. The recommended thing to bring to feed the chickadees is black oil sunflower seeds. You can find bags at any home improvement store, or even at Target or Walmart wherever they sell birdseed.
These seeds are safe for the birds – plus, they really like them!
3. Stand under a tree branch
The trickiest part of hand-feeding birds is getting them to land in your hand. We saw lots of people standing out in the open, palms raised, getting frustrated because birds weren’t visiting their hands.
Even though the birds here are very trusting of people, there are still certain ways they prefer to feed. They find food using their eyes, and they like to scope out the situation before hopping into an open hand.
To improve your chances, you want to position your hand underneath a small tree branch. The birds will first land on the branch, and then hop down into your hand.
Of the many birds we fed, 99% of them first landed on a nearby branch before coming to our hands.
We had the best luck standing in the group of small trees directly across the path from the designated feeding area on the side of the Nature Center.
4. Be still and patient
This one probably goes without saying, but you do need to be patient and keep fairly still while you’re waiting for birds to find your hand.
Chickadees kind of feed in “waves,” too, in our experience. The birds eat one at a time, based on bird hierarchy. So if there are several flitting about in the trees near you, chances are they may all visit your hand one after another; you just need to wait for that first one to land.
5. Dress for the weather
Since this activity requires you to stand fairly still outdoors in cold wintry temperatures, be sure you come prepared with warm clothing! Winter coats, boots, hats, and gloves are all recommended.
And in case you’re wondering, the birds don’t seem to mind whether you feed them out of a bare hand or a gloved hand. Just make sure to bring some hand sanitizer with you to use when you’re done if you’re feeding them out of your bare hand (but, I mean, we’re all traveling with that now anyway, right?).
6. Watch for other birds, too
While this program mentions chickadees specifically, there are lots of other types of birds in Brecksville Reservation, too.
Most of the other birds are unlikely to land in your hand, but you still may see them pretty up-close! We saw several cardinals, and even a red-bellied woodpecker while we were there.
Essential info for feeding birds at Brecksville Reservation
What: Hand-feeding chickadees and other non-migratory birds.
Where: Brecksville Nature Center at Brecksville Reservation, 9000 Chippewa Creek Dr., Brecksville, OH 44141. It’s a short walk on a paved trail from the parking lot to the Nature Center.
When: December-February; usually the Nature Center encourages this on weekend mornings, but since it’s currently closed you can really go anytime you’d like.
Want to learn more? The Cleveland Metroparks is running fewer naturalist programs right now, but you can still find birding programs offered on select days at the Brecksville Nature Center. Visit the Brecksville Reservation website and scroll down to “Upcoming Programs & Events” for more info.
Have you ever hand-fed the chickadees in Brecksville?
Like this post? Here are some other winter posts you might like:
- Winter Adventure at the Cleveland Metroparks Toboggan Chutes
- Where to See Frozen Waterfalls Near Cleveland this Winter
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the Winter: Your Ultimate Guide
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Amanda was born and raised in northeast Ohio, and has always been a fangirl of the state. Now, she wants to share her love of Cleveland with the world, highlighting all the best things to do, see, and eat in the CLE. She’s been running Cleveland Traveler since January 2019.