Comfort food

Blue Jay

Hot on the heels of the snowstorm on Wednesday, we’re receiving another good pile of snow today. It’s still blowing fiercely out there, a good stiff wind whipping clouds of white powder down from the sky and up from the ground and carrying it off nearly horizontally (the Weather Network says it’s gusting to 52 km/h, or 32 mph). I had to go out to my car briefly around 10 this morning, and even by that early hour there were already about 4 inches of powdered snow accumulated. I haven’t been out since, but my guestimate from looking out the window is that it’s more than doubled, perhaps now at 10 inches.

Tree Sparrows and a junco

I’m back in the city, and we have no spot for a feeder in our balcony-less, yard-less apartment, so I have no mobs of birds to watch, although I’m sure there would be plenty there today if we did have a feeder out. My mom reports that the feeders have been very active all day, and she’s refilled the finches’ nyger feeder twice. Days like today it’s extremely important for birds to keep their energy levels up by eating, because they need to expend a lot to keep warm against the cold and winds. Unfortunately, days like today it’s also difficult to come by food readily in the natural environment, so artificially-stocked feeders are usually very busy as birds take advantage of this abundant and easy food source.

Hairy and Downy at suet

If a bird has the ability to feed on a range of food types (some birds are specialists simply by their bill design), they’ll usually choose the source that is the most energy-rich, generally those with the most fats. Fatty seeds include sunflower (particularly black oil), safflower and nyger, as well as peanuts. Suet becomes an increasingly important food source to many species as well. Since it’s nearly pure fat, with seeds mixed in, it’s a very easy source of energy.

The species that come to suet regularly through the winter are the ones that subsist, at least in part, on overwintering insects or insect larvae. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees, all birds that will naturally forage under bark and in crevices through the cold months for spiders, grubs, and other dormant insects, favour suet regardless of the weather. In the above photo, a Hairy Woodpecker has chased a Downy from the feeder. Aside from the size difference, you can also notice the spots on the white tail feathers on the Downy, while the Hairy lacks them. The bill size and shape relative to the depth of the head is another good characteristic, but you can’t see the Downy’s bill here.

Juncos at suet

When the weather turns sour, more species are more likely to give suet a try. Most North American species will feed on insects as part of their diet during summer months, since insects are so abundant, so making the switch to suet isn’t an entirely unnatural move. However, it’s a little strange to see juncos pecking at the suet block like a woodpecker!

Downy and Tree Sparrow at suet

The American Tree Sparrows were willing to give it a try, too. Here one shares the feeder with a Downy Woodpecker. My mom has two types of suet feeders up, one that holds the traditional square blocks, and another one that is a block of wood with large holes drilled in it, into which you insert cylinders of suet. For whatever reason, it’s this wooden feeder that’s the most popular with most of the birds, even when both are available. Perhaps because it mimics their natural feeding behaviour/habitat better?

Crow checking out suet

Even the crow seemed willing to consider the suet. It sat there for a minute or two contemplating the block, before deciding it either wasn’t feasible or wasn’t worth the effort, and taking off.

You can also buy commercial suet in bell shapes, but I haven’t known them to be as popular with birds (of course, if it’s all that’s available, they’ll be quiet happy to feed from it). Occasionally small-town grocery stores might hand-make suet balls from fatty scraps from their meat department (my mom bought these for a number of years from a local grocer, and the birds loved them).

Hairy and starling at suet

A female Hairy checks out the first-of-spring female starling who’s sucking back her tasty suet, shortly before she chases the starling off.

One downside to many suets is that when the weather warms up, they have a tendency to start melting, and you end up with a pile of soft suet on the ground under the feeder, where it may or may not be eaten. If you’re the sort to put out birdfeed throughout the year this usually eliminates suet from the summer spread. Some companies, such as Wild Birds Unlimited, sell no-melt suet doughs that can withstand higher temperatures.

Junco at suet

Of course, if you’re the ambitious hands-on sort, you can always make your own suet. Julie Zickefoose has a recipe that’s colloquially known across the blogosphere as “Zick dough”, a sort of suet dough that is incredibly popular with birds (especially her bluebirds). The Owl Box even suggests it to be akin to “bird crack”. More bluebirds over at Journey Through Grace, juncos at A Spattering, Black-headed Grosbeaks at Chickadee Chatter, great variety over at Mary’s View and Hasty Brook. Birds go crazy for it.

Do a Google search for “Zick dough” (with quotes, so you get the words as a phrase) and you’ll be amazed at the astounding number of hits you get! My search returned about 680 English pages (I skimmed the first dozen or so for the above examples). Since I don’t have a feeder here I haven’t yet given it a try, but my mom suggested I do up a batch this weekend and bring it out next week to try it, so I’m going to do that. We don’t have bluebirds back yet, but I’m sure the rest of the birds will love it. From everything I’ve heard, it is THE food to put out to attract birds to your backyard!

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6 responses to “Comfort food

  1. I made some this morning and within an hour I saw more birds than I had seen all winter. That’s not saying much, since I’ve hardly seen any birds this winter, but there were several chickadees, some blue jays and a flock of something else that may have been grackles (?) I’m new to birding and they didn’t exactly look like anything in my bird guide. Hopefully, now that the birds know that I’ve got zick dough, they’ll come back and let me figure out who they are.

  2. Hi Seabrooke! I’ve been wanting to visit here and I’m so glad I did. You see, I’m sort of a beginning bird person and you’ve provided some good info here. Your photos are wonderful. A photo of a bird surrounded by snowflakes…ahhhh.

    During the past year, I have learned that it’s all about the black oil sunflower and nuts. And Zick Dough. I served Zick dough for the first time in January and it took a little time, but all of the birds fight over it now. Mealworms are very popular with the wrens, Chickadees and Mockingbirds. I’ll stop serving Zick dough soon – I guess around the time the hummingbirds arrive. I’ll hang no-melt suet cakes for the woodpeckers until fall arrives.

    The starlings and grackles…that’s another story. I offered strictly safflower seed last spring for about two months. They loved it. :o/

    Thanks for your visits to my blog. I’ll be back to visit!

    Mary

  3. themarvelousinnature

    @ Beth: I’m glad to know you had such good, immediate success with it! That gives me hope that I’ll get a good turnout without having to wait too long, hopefully. The birds could be grackles, they’re one of the earlier birds to return in spring, and we’re not too far off when they come back here. Hopefully they’ll return and give you some good looks.

    @ Mary: I’m happy to hear that you’ve found some of the info helpful, and thanks for the compliment. I’m not sure my mom would be keen on the mealworms, although once I get the yard I’m hoping for I’ll be happy to put them out at my own feeders. However, it’s good to know I should expect to exercise some patience with the Zick dough. Did you stop serving it in the spring because of mess concerns? The starlings and grackles can sure clean you out, eh?

  4. Great photos! I feel bad for the birds in this weather; it’s boring and tiresome for us, but life-threatening for them.

  5. themarvelousinnature

    Thanks, Wren. I agree – I’d invited them into the house if I could, but somehow don’t think they’d accept. :)

  6. Hey! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?

    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really appreciate your content.
    Please let me know. Thanks

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