Suet Is For the Birds!

Baby, Its Cold Outside!  A popular song says it all! Birds are declining in record numbers and need our help. 

Birds have many strategies to survive without our help but as a concerned birder, I like to think that my practice of feeding them nutritious food tips the balance in their favor during extreme weather.

Chunk of home-made high-energy suet – recipe below

Mortality during extremely cold weather is much greater for birds and it has been proven that bird survival improves with ready access to backyard feeders.

Hawks prey on birds at feeders

Predation of birds will occur at your feeders and is the way nature happens. Hawks and other prey birds have to kill and eat one to three other birds or rodents a day to survive. Your best strategy is to provide cover such as hedges or shrubs near your feeders so that feeding birds have somewhere to shelter if a hawk comes a-hunting.

Sometimes you just see a streak plunging through the sky when a hawk appears and all the songbirds scatter for cover. Flocks of crows will also descend on my feeders and empty them out. If I see them I let my dogs out to chase them away. The same for squirrels…. I don’t mind squirrels raiding the feeders once in a while and my dogs make sure they keep their visits to a minimum.

Cardinals are regular visitors

Top Three Strategies

Shelter

Evergreen trees provide the best place for a roosting bird to hide from predators. An alternative to planting coniferous trees is building a brush pile of repurposed branches and debris from your yard.  Gather branches, moss, and other yard debris pile them up in a sheltered corner. Birds like to hide and settle in these brushy havens.  I have a meadow with towering spent goldenrod and other wildflowers that over the course of the winter tends to flop over and create hidden pockets for animals to find sanctuary in.

Thickets of goldenrod in my meadow create pockets for birds to take shelter 

Re-purpose your old Christmas tree as an instant shelter.

Repurpose the top of a Christmas tree for the birds

Put up old plywood sheets as a windbreak. Keep up old birdhouses/nesting boxes over the winter which allows birds a safe haven from weather also. Empty the old nesting materials and place old cotton, scraps of fabric and yarn into the cavity.

I have reused an old planter as a smorgasbord with pine cones smeared with peanut butter, wool for nests, and millet branches
I have reused an old planter as a smorgasbord with pinecones smeared with peanut butter, natural sheep’s wool for nests, broom seeds, and millet branches

Placing your feeders close to shelter, evergreen and deciduous, allows birds to perch and zoom in on the feeder when it is safe, especially important for smaller birds.

A fluffed up Bluebird is perching in a nearby tree close to my feeders

Birds in extreme cold puff up their feathers in order to trap more air in them, which is then warmed by their body heat and keeps them warmer.

Fluffy Cardinal perched in a tree overhanging my feeder

Fresh Water

Birds more than any other time of year need fresh water in the winter. It is a precious commodity and if you provide it, birds will take advantage. The cheapest way is to buy a heated dog bowl. Simple but effective.

When my pond freezes, the waterfall is usually left running and I find birds hopping in the running water for a quick drink.

The birds can still access water in my waterfall

I also have a pond de-icer to keep a ring of water free around the unit. An alternative is to buy a bird bath heater to keep the ice away in your bird bath. Even if you put out a bowl of water, in this weather, the water freezes very quickly, and a heater is a must have.

When freezing temperatures arrive, water is a necessary addition to bird’s needs

Food: Set the Table With High Fat Energy

If done right, feeding birds can be very beneficial, both for the bird and bird watching friends. Make sure your seed is high and dry. For making bird seed ornaments, go to DIY Bird Seed Ornaments.  A hopper or tube feeder keeps the food dry and free flowing. I use a high capacity triple tube feeder to lessen my trips to fill it up. Peanut feeders, suet feeders, and platform feeders are all options to increase your odds of attracting the largest variety. Think fatty things! After cutting fat off of a chuck steak, I placed the chunks on a platform feeder and it was gone in a few days. Meat scraps, meal worms, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter are all healthy options for a high fat diet.

Homemade suet- see my recipe below

Also, don’t forget to provide clean, bleached (one part bleach to nine parts water) bird feeders ready to go when your old ones get all soggy and dirty from precipitation. Scatter seed at the edge of woods, under hedges, and in brambles to encourage shy birds to eat, especially in snow covered areas.  Some birds won’t venture to feeders and compete with others.

High fat smorgasbord- meal worms, sunflower seeds, beef fat, and sunflower seeds
A starling on a suet cage
Flickers (in the woodpecker family) use their long pointed beaks to dig out suet

Suet is easy to prepare and you can add lots of types of seeds and berries to improve over store-bought varieties.

Suet Recipe

Peanut Butter Bird Suet

This makes a simple high fat suet cake that you cut up to make any size or shape. I use lard or beef suet for the fat. Lard is easier to find. I also throw in many additions like raisins, sunflower seeds, nuts, etc.   

Ingredients

  • 2 C Crunchy or smooth Peanut Butter
  • 2 C Lard or Beef Fat
  • 4 C Oatmeal
  • 4 C Corn Meal
  • 2 C Flour, white of whole wheat
  • 2/3 C Sugar, brown or white
  • Raisins, peanuts, dried fruit, bird seed can be added to this mix, just make sure everything is thoroughly moistened with the lard mix

Instructions

  1. Melt lard and peanut butter in a dutch oven. 

  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will be stiff and wet. 

  3. Spoon into a 9 x13 glass casserole or half gallon waxed milk container. When hard, cut into squares and you can store any excess in the freezer.

Suet supplies
Melt suet and peanut butter in a large saucepan
Stir in dry ingredients
Spread mixture in pan to harden completely
Put in refrigerator to harden completely and cut into chunks; I added raisins to this batch

These strategies don’t cost you much but on those nights when the wind blows icy cold and the snow swirls around, our feathered friends will be puffed up and cozy in the shelters that we provided, well-nourished and hydrated. To read more about Bird Buffets go to my post Berry Bird Buffet.

Dueling birds

12 Replies to “Suet Is For the Birds!”

    1. Ha! I should make a list of all the varieties that I see! I have seen many bluebirds and orioles while living here.

    2. I had tried some purchased suet last season, and had no visitors to my suet cage. I tossed the cage and stuck to my summer feedings, where the birds appreciated my thistle. This year, I made your recipe for suet. I bought a new cage, purchased all the ingredients, and hunkered down to prepare it. Much to my delight, after three days of no success–they came!
      I appreciate your posting of this suet recipe. Although my yard is very bird friendly in a natural manner, I like offering this extra to my feathered buddies.

  1. You’re amazing to make homemade suet! I always buy the commercially made ones that fit perfectly in the suet holders. I imagine for birds it’s the equivalent of giving your family homemade cookies vs store bought. Maybe someday I will make suet so I have saved your recipe. I am currently in Christmas preparation mode.
    Is the White House being decorated with volunteers in this pandemic time? Are they going to provide virtual tours?
    Your experiences were fascinating to see…take care..

    1. The White House was decorated with a reduced number of volunteers this year. I am working on a post right now of the gingerbread creations that are made each year by the White House pastry chef. I always admired the creations every year.

      1. Can’t wait to see it! I have always admired gingerbread used for houses and assorted other things. Is the gingerbread recipe available somewhere? The cookies I make wouldn’t be good for a construction project! It’s a real art form.

  2. After recently trimming a too-tall evergreen shrub I ‘planted’ the 6′ top branch so that I can decorate it for the birds. I can’t wait! I LOVE providing for my birds! Never knew about putting out beef fat — will definitely be conscious of my trimmings next time. Just like Julie, I typically purchase suet cakes. However I would like to make my own and maybe while mixture is still soft put cookie cutters in it (& a drinking straw piece for the hanging hole) so my tree will have fun shapes to hang on it. The rest of the scraps I should be able to load into my suet cake cage.
    I ALWAYS LOVE READING YOUR IDEAS & SUGGESTIONS!

    1. I’ve gathered my ingredients, and am ready to make my suet, as per your recipe. I have tried the store bought in the past, and received no takers. I hope the squirrels don’t jump up and swing from the cage as they have done for any bird feeder I have hung, barring Nyjer seed feeders.
      Is it necessary to place a cover over the cage, to prevent snow from accumulating or rain from wearing the suet down?

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