One of my favorite things in nature is getting up close and personal to birds in the wild.
Most birds are incredibly shy about being approached, but with the right techniques, it’s possible to earn their trust and have some truly amazing close encounters!
If you want to get closer to birds, the most important thing is moving slowly enough that you don’t make them nervous.
Birds will display nervous behavior if you try to approach too quickly. It’s important to recognize nervous body language so you can slow down and give the bird time to relax.
It all comes down to 4 basic steps:
- Learn to recognize the signs of nervous/alert behavior in birds
- Stop pressuring birds when they display nervous behavior
- Give birds time to relax so they stop seeing you as a threat (and allow you to come closer)
- Always approach in a relaxed & indirect manner that is non-threatening
This strategy works with all types of birds in all different habitats. Whether your goal is to get better at nature photography, or the simple joy of interacting up close with wildlife.
I’ve spent a crazy amount of time over the years honing my skills at getting closer to birds and today I’m going to share all my secrets to help you do this too.
How To Know When A Bird Is Scared Of You
If you want to get closer to birds, you first need to become skilled at identifying behaviors that indicate when birds are scared or nervous about you.
The bird fear response can be classified into three stages of intensity:
- Relaxed behavior
- Alertness behavior
- Fear response
The trick is learning to recognize when birds shift from a relaxed state into alertness behavior so you can adjust your own approach BEFORE triggering a fear response.
Relaxed behaviors are rhythmic and repetitious activities that help birds live successful lives, including things like:
These behaviors are all good indicators that birds are not feeling under direct or immediate pressure from danger (like an approaching human).
However as you move closer to a bird, there comes a point when your proximity will cause that bird to become much more alert or nervous about you.
Some common signs of agitation/nervousness in birds include:
- Sudden interruption of feeding or singing
- Flying up to a perch
- Tail flipping
- Looking at you
- Moving away from you while continuing to feed
- Alarm calls
It’s important to recognize these behavioral indicators of alertness when they happen so you can stop applying pressure to that bird.
If you keep pushing past the alertness stage, you will very quickly trigger that bird’s fear response and it will fly away, thus ending your chances of getting closer.
How To Get Closer To Birds Step-By-Step
The next key for approaching birds is taking slow, gentle steps closer while actively monitoring what effect you have on its behavior & body language.
Birds are easiest to approach when they’re engaged in soft, rhythmic behaviors that repeat over and over again in a specific location (like feeding or singing).
If you see a bird and want to get a closer look, start by taking a few slow steps closer and carefully monitor that bird’s reaction.
Notice if anything changes in that bird’s behavior or body language as you approach:
- Does the bird continue feeding?
- Does it stop and look at you?
- Does it fly away?
- Does it slowly move away in the other direction?
- Does it ignore you?
If the bird continues displaying relaxed body language, go ahead and take a few more small steps closer and continue to monitor for a reaction.
As you approach closer, eventually your proximity will start to elicit a response. The bird may stop & look at you, or it might fly up in a nearby perch to get a better view.
This is that bird’s way of saying “Hey, you’re getting a bit too close now and it’s making me nervous.”
Whenever you see a bird reacting to your approach, you need to stop and allow it some time to relax.
Simply pause for a few minutes and wait for it to calm down.
Typically after a few minutes, the birds will relax and fly back down to continue feeding. Then as the relaxed behavior resumes, you can continue your approach (being cautious not to repeat the same mistake from before).
Ask yourself – what was it in my approach that made the bird react?
- Was it your proximity?
- Were you moving too fast?
- Were you making intense eye contact like a predator?
- Did you make a jerky movement?
- Were you fiddling with your camera bag?
- Did you lose focus for a moment?
With practice & repetition, the birds will tell you how to approach them more effectively.
14 Tips For Getting Closer To Birds
- Don’t constantly look directly at the bird. This can be interpreted as a threat. It’s okay to softly gaze and observe, but also spend time looking at other things too so your focus isn’t so intense like a predator.
- Approach at indirect angles. Never move directly towards a bird unless your goal is to scare it. Try a more meandering approach and you’ll have better results.
- Move in gentle spurts. Take a couple steps, then pause and see what the bird does. Then try a few more, and pause again to monitor the reaction. This gives the bird time to acclimate to your presence and decide whether you’re a threat.
- Relax your own body & mind before you approach. Birds are very sensitive to body language. If you aren’t relaxed & calm internally, this will make it difficult to get close.
- Pretend you’re just another friendly songbird foraging along for insects & seeds. How would you move if this were true?
- Use a predictable & smooth movement pattern. Minimize jerky movements, almost like you’re doing everything in slow motion. The more predictable you can be, the more comfortable birds will feel around you.
- Experiment with approaching many different types of birds. Some bird species are much more comfortable being close to people, while others require significantly more caution to avoid alerting them.
- Consider too the location where you’re making your approach. Many birds in urban environments are quite comfortable being approached by humans, and typically can be approached a bit more aggressively.
- Practice repeatedly with the same individual birds. As they get to know you and your habits, they will become more comfortable allowing you closer.
- In wild locations, allow birds more personal space. The more wild your location, the more wary birds will be of you and the longer it will take for them to let you get closer.
- There is a limit to how close birds will allow you to approach. It’s important that you respect these limitations and not try to force yourself in there. If you respect their limitations, eventually their limitations will relax.
- If your goal is to photograph birds, a zoom lens can help you get closeup shots without stressing the bird out. Binoculars are great for seeing birds clearly without scaring them prematurely.
- Getting closer to birds is a skill that improves with practice, so don’t expect amazing results the first time you try this out. With repetition and experience your results will improve.
- The best results will come from starting with the easiest & most common birds first. Build your skills in easy situations before graduating onto more challenging ones.
Which Birds Are Easiest To Approach?
In general, the easiest birds to approach are those who are used to living close to humans.
Birds in urban areas get desensitized to having people around, and they’re commonly fed, which helps to reduce their fear response & have a smaller zone of comfort.
In these locations, some birds like gray jays, nuthatches & chickadees will even land on your hand if they’re accustomed to being fed.
- Birds that feed and nest in the canopy can also be very easy to approach, although their tree-top lifestyles makes them difficult to spot.
- My favorite birds to practice with are those who spend a lot of time on the ground like robins, sparrows and pheasants. These birds are easy to see from a distance, but will really challenge you to build up your approaching skills.
- Due to the habit of perching for long periods of time in conspicuous locations, many predatory birds like eagles, hawks & owls can be surprisingly easy to approach (if you know how to find them).
- In areas with lots of people, ducks & geese can be extremely easy to approach. However these same birds can be extremely difficult to approach in wilder locations.
- Crows are widely known as some of the most challenging birds to approach, although I’ve heard enough stories from readers over the years to know it can be done given the right circumstance
The more wild your location gets, the more skill and patience will be required, so always bear this in mind as you decide how much you want to challenge yourself.
Why Do Birds Get Scared And Fly Away?
Birds are common prey for predatory animals like hawks & cats. As a result, they’re conditioned from a young age to be afraid of anything that moves towards them in a manner they perceive to be threatening.
Birds are extremely sensitive to body language & personal space, so don’t take it personally if a bird gets scared of you.
It can be hard for us humans to relate with what it must be like being such a vulnerable creature surrounded by killer hawks, cats, owls, etc.
A brief pause in feeding with a sudden glance is sometimes all it takes for a bird to communicate you’re making it uncomfortable.
If you move too fast, or ignore what that bird is communicating, you’ll trigger it’s fear response, possibly even causing alarm calls that alert every animal in the area to your presence.
Get Birds To Approach YOU!
One of the keys for getting closer to birds is learning to move in a respectful way that allows birds their personal space.
Most birds are not used to being respected by humans because we so commonly barge through and scare them up without any regard for their safety or comfort.
It’s a sad statement about us as people, but it’s true. The standard mindset of a bird is that humans don’t care about their personal space.
However – If you make a regular habit of moving in a respectful way that allows birds their personal space, eventually they will start to trust you more and even come closer by their own choice.
When I first started applying these techniques with my local robins, they wouldn’t let me get within 20 feet before flying up.
Now they regularly come within 5 feet of me while I’m out for my walks, and I’m not even trying to approach them!
As you learn to walk with respectful body language that communicates trust & safety with the birds, more and more the birds just start to feel comfortable with you.
Practice these tips and pretty soon your friends & family will start calling you the bird whisperer!