Indiana offers a variety of outdoor activities year-round, but when the winter season rolls in and the air begins to cool, venturing outside can be less appealing.
Luckily, there’s at least one outdoor winter activity that gets better the inclement weather—feeding birds.
At Blue Spruce Park along the Getty Run Trail near the playground, wild birds have been conditioned to take food from human hands for the past decade.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the activity and the 11th winter.
Those who hike the trail with black oil sunflower seeds and peanut wedges are sure to encounter curious tits, tufted tits and nuthatches looking for a good meal.
“The birds are much more active when it’s very cold,” said Ray Winstead, a former IUD biology professor who conditioned the birds more than a decade ago. “They store seeds in anticipation of settling down for a while.”
The birds all have a penchant for seeds, but Winstead has found particular success with a mix of small oil black sunflower seeds and peanuts, removed from their shells and halved, i.e. ‘peanut splits’. He said store-bought bird seed doesn’t really interest the birds, but his special blend of seeds from the Indiana Feed and Supply Store on Water Street keeps them coming back.
“The birds have preferences (depending on the species) and even individuals of different species (have different preferences),” Winstead said.
“If you get birdseed without sunflower seeds, they won’t like it. They will check, but they won’t come back.”
Winstead began “training” the birds to eat from his hand in November 2012, and he discovered a few tricks that improve the experience.
Winstead said that shaking a container of bird seed alerts the birds to come by for the feed. After a few birds have gathered, it’s best to stand still and hold a handful of seeds. Birds land most comfortably on a steady, motionless hand that is stretched out flat. The birds are more likely to eat out of someone’s hand if the person is under a tree where the birds can land before taking seeds.
The birds may fly onto someone’s hand a few times before landing to take seeds. Winstead said this was to test whether the person holding the seeds remained still.
Ed Patterson, director of Winstead and Indiana Parks and Trails, specifically urged that people should avoid tossing or scattering seeds on the ground or on benches — as it could discourage the birds from getting away from people’s hands feed.
“The only thing we ask is that when people come to feed the birds, they don’t leave extra seeds lying around,” Patterson said. “It kind of spoils it for everyone else.”
The birds are most active during the winter season and are somewhat active in late fall and early spring. But there are a few factors that make bird feeding at Blue Spruce Park a winter activity.
First, according to Winstead, the birds travel in flocks during the winter. When flocks of birds travel, scout and congregate, it is easier to encounter larger numbers of birds searching for food at the same time.
Second, fewer natural food sources are available to birds during the winter season. Therefore, they are more likely to take food from people’s hands to cache for later. Third, as the weather gets colder, harsher, and more adverse, the birds become more determined to find food to store in anticipation of winter storms.
Winstead, a member of the Todd Bird Club in Indiana, became interested in feeding birds after traveling to LaSalle Park near Burlington, Canada in 2011 with club members Margaret and Roger Higbee. During the trip, Winstead and the Higbees hand-fed birds, and Winstead wanted to replicate the experience in Indiana.
According to his website, Winstead’s plan was to “train” the titmouse at Blue Spruce Park.
Every day for about a month he planted seeds on two stumps in the forest, standing close enough for the birds to see him but far enough to remain nonthreatening.
Winstead took a step closer to the tree stumps each day after he planted the seeds.
After about a month, Winstead was standing between the two stumps, and the birds would come conveniently beside him to take seeds. Eventually the birds began to congregate around the stumps when they saw Winstead and he began offering the seeds by hand – the “training” was a success. Now the birds fly around Winstead whenever he enters the forest – and not only tits, but also tufted tits and nuthatches.
“Since that start at Blue Spruce Park in 2012, birds have willingly come to my hand every time I go out to see them in the winter,” Winstead’s website reads.
“The good news is that the acceptance of the birds for me is transferrable to other people.”
What began as a personal project for Winstead quickly grew into a popular activity at the park, spreading through word of mouth.
“Right after the hit, I took family members outside and then told other friends, and it seems to have grown a lot,” Winstead said. “I went out almost every day just because I love doing it, and other people showed up to walk the trails.
“I would tell them about it and give them seeds and they would keep coming back.”
Patterson said bird feeding at Blue Spruce Park has even become something of a tourist attraction, with annual programs bringing together groups from Pittsburgh, Johnstown and other surrounding areas to feed the birds. In recent years, the organizations Indiana County Decathlon and The Friends of the Parks have sponsored and attended a Winstead-led Hot Chocolate Walk, formerly the Chili Walk.
“I’ve seen the joy this activity brings to people,” says Winstead’s website, “and because I believe this activity brings us closer to nature in a delightful way, I believe we’re more likely to do what is necessary.” to protect nature.”