Being the grandson of Gillis d'Hondecoeter and son of Gijsbert d'Hondecoeter, as well as nephew of Jan Baptist Weenix, he was brought up by the last to the profession of painting, when his father died. Of Weenix we know that he married Gilles daughter Josina in 1638. Melchior was, therefore, also related to Jan Weenix. The latter told Arnold Houbraken, in his youth Melchior was extremely religious, praying very loud, so his mother and uncle doubted if they would have him trained as a painter.
In 1659 he was working in the Hague and became a member of the painters' academy at the Hague. In 1663 Hondecoeter married Susanne Tradel in Amsterdam. While she was captious and having her sisters living in their house, Hondecoeter spent much time in his garden or drinking in the tavern in the Jordaan. On the Lauriergracht, where he used to live, he was surrounded by art dealers and various painters. Later he moved to a house on Prinsengracht. In 1686 he bought a small countryhouse in Vreeland. Hondecoeter died in the house of his daughter Isabel in Warmoesstraat but was buried in Westerkerk near his house. His inventory lists a small gallow, to keep birds in the right position, and several paintings of Frans Snyders.
Melchior began his career with a different speciality from that by which he is usually known. Mr de Stuers affirms that he produced sea-pieces. One of his earliest works is a "Tub with Fish," dated 1655, in the gallery of Brunswick. But Melchior soon abandoned fish for fowl. He acquired celebrity as a painter of birds only, which he represented not exclusively, like Johannes Fyt, as the gamekeeper's perquisite after a day's shooting, or stock of a poulterer's shop, but as living beings with passions, joys, fears and quarrels, to which naturalists will tell us that birds are subject. Without the brilliant tone and high finish of Fyt, his Dutch rival's birds are full of action; and, as Burger truly says, "Hondecoeter displays the maternity of the hen with as much tenderness and feeling as Raphael the maternity of Madonnas."
But Fyt was at home in depicting the coat of deer and dons as well as plumage. Hondecoeter cultivates a narrower field, and seldom goes beyond a cock-fight or a display of mere bird life. Very few of his pictures are dated, though more are signed. Amongst the former we should note the "Jackdaw deprived of his Borrowed Plumes" (1671), at the Hague, of which Earl Cadogan has a variety; or "Game and Poultry" and "A Spaniel hunting a Partridge" (1672), in the gallery of Brussels; or "A Park with Poultry" (1686) at the Hermitage of St Petersburg.
William III employed Hondecoeter, in great favour with the magnates of the Netherlands, to paint his menagerie at Het Loo, and the picture, now at the Hague museum, shows that he could at a pinch overcome the difficulty of representing India's cattle, elephants and gazelles. But he is better in homelier works, with which he adorned the royal castles of Bensberg and Oranienstein at different periods of his life. His earliest works are more conscientious, lighter and more transparent than his later ones. At all times he is bold of touch and sure of eye, giving the motion of birds with great spirit and accuracy.
His masterpieces are at the Hague, Soestdijk and at Amsterdam. But there are fine examples in private collections in England, like Belton House in Lincolnshire and in the public galleries of Berlin, Caen, Carlsruhe, Cassel, Cologne, Copenhagen, Dresden, Dublin, Florence, Glasgow, Hanover, London, Lyons, Lille, Montpellier, Munich, Paris, Rotterdam, Rouen, St Petersburg, Stuttgart, Schwerin and Vienna.