Put out the Suet
By Kate Crowley
From the looks of things it appears we are in for a long winter. The jet stream is following the same path we saw last winter and getting stuck in one pattern with the arctic air shooting straight down through Minnesota. While these cold temperatures are going to put a strain on our heating resources in the coming months, we can’t forget the impact it will have on wildlife. The 12 inches of snow that fell last week has covered up the dried grasses at an earlier date and so the availability of natural food resources for the seed eating birds is greatly reduced. If ever there were a year to hang up bird feeders around your home, this would be it.
Most people put out seeds of one sort or another; we highly recommend the black sunflower seeds because they provide more protein and fat than some of the mixes which might include millet or corn. You will find that squirrels and non-native birds like starlings and house sparrows are attracted to the latter. The other type of food that you should consider putting out for the birds is suet. Technically suet is animal fat rendered from the liver of a cow, but any fatty pieces will do. Fat is a major source of dietary energy and per unit weight, contains more than twice the caloric energy as the equivalent of protein and carbohydrates. Not only are birds having to deal with the extended cold temperatures, but they also have extremely fast metabolisms and burn through their fat reserves quickly, using up to 15 percent of their body weight just trying to keep warm overnight.
Today there as many varieties of suet types available as there are bird seed, but the most basic can be found in the grocery store in the meat section. Most stores stock chunks of suet in vacuum sealed plastic bags, while other may have it in a mesh bag. If you purchase a chunk not already in a mesh bag, you can use an onion bag, or something similar to hang it up. The important thing is that the bird’s beak be able to reach the suet. One other source of this type of fat is that found on pieces of meat that you are preparing to cook. Many times you are instructed to trim these and they too can be put out for the birds.
More recently suet has become available in prepared squares (cakes) that fit neatly into plastic coated wire suet cages available wherever birdfeeders are sold. These feeders are simple, inexpensive and last for years. Suet cakes now come in a wide variety of ‘flavors’, supposedly to attract specific species with the addition of various fruits or nuts; a good example of marketing to the masses. We like variety in our food, so we assume the birds must too. As long as they contain a goodly portion of fat, the birds will be more than happy to consume them.
It is the insect eating birds that seek out suet, since the availability of the natural source is so limited in winter. We’re talking about the downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, the red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, black-capped chickadees, and oh yes – the blue jays, which are more omnivores than insectivores. Crows are also known to visit suet feeders and given enough time will empty them out. It is best to mount the suet feeders on the trunk of a tree at eye level or higher. Most of the woodpeckers that come to these feeders use the bark of the tree to grasp and hold themselves in place. If you hang one from a branch, keep it close to a trunk for the same reason. Chickadees and nuthatches can cling to the feeder with ease. We do have one suet feeder that looks like a little house and the suet cake goes in the bottom. It has not been popular with the birds, but last month I saw a hairy woodpecker clinging upside down to this particular feeder in order to reach the food.
You can also make your own suet, though I don’t recommend trying to melt a block of suet from the meat department. I tried that one time, and though it is offered in some recipes, I found that it took forever to melt and then only a small portion. I found it much easier to buy a box of lard – the kind used by pie makers (and reputed to make the best pie crust). This melts easily in a pan on the stove (low temperature), and then you can add your own ingredients. The list includes; corn meal, peanut butter, old fashioned or quick cooking oats, flour, unsalted sunflower seeds or other nuts, raisins and other dried berries. We also save the fat from cooking bacon and add that to the lard. These concoctions can be saved in the refrigerator or freezer in the pans or after cooling down, shaped into balls and then frozen.
With this homemade suet you can become even more creative with your feeding apparatus. With minimal woodworking tools and skill you can saw off a piece of branch big enough to hold one inch holes, which you drill into or through the branch. Find a spot to hang it up and fill the holes with your suet. You can even get more basic and take the still warm suet outside and smear it into the crevices of bark on the tree and watch the birds excavate it. We have an old tree stump about four feet tall just in front of our deck and each winter we go out and fill the cracks and crannies with suet, then sit back to see who will find it first. This sometimes includes squirrels if there is peanut butter in the mix.
If you would like exact recipes for making suet you can find plenty on the internet. Just search Suet for Birds. By adding suet to your feeding repertoire you are very likely going to see an increase in the variety of birds taking advantage of your generosity and providing you with more winter entertainment.