Homemade suet cakes

American Tree Sparrow and White-breasted Nuthatch at suet

A couple of weeks ago I made some homemade suet cakes with our accumulated fat drippings from a year’s worth of cooking. We put the first one out a few days ago, and while it took a day for the birds to discover it was there, once they did it’s been a hit. I’ve seen all of our regular pecker-style feeders there – the chickadees, of course, as well as the Downy Woodpecker and both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Who I didn’t expect to see eating it, mostly due to its presentation format, were the American Tree Sparrows.

American Tree Sparrow at suet

If the chickadees have been fans, and the White-breasted Nuthatches huge fans, then the American Tree Sparrows are Huge Fans. There are greater odds of glancing out the window to see a tree sparrow on the suet than there are of catching a chickadee on it, it seems. I’m not used to seeing ground feeders on suet cages, so every time I see them there it feels like a surprise.

American Tree Sparrows at suet

But it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. In the winter months, it can often be a struggle just for a bird to get enough energy to make it through to the next day. Thermoregulation in cold temperatures comes at great metabolic cost. Sunflower seeds are one of the favourites at bird feeding stations because they have among the best reward:effort ratio – the highest fat content for the size of the seed and the trouble it takes to open it. Even better than sunflower seeds, though, is suet. Suet, in its most basic form, is pure fat. It’s hard to find something more energetically rewarding than that.

American Tree Sparrow and White-breasted Nuthatch at suet

Suet can be put out for the birds just as it is, but it’s common for it to be mixed in with other ingredients. These, in theory, make it more nutritious and/or tasty to the birds. Or perhaps it just makes it seem more appealing to our human palates. Common ingredients mixed in to suet are peanut butter and/or peanuts, birdseed, and cornmeal.

American Tree Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadee at suet

Julie Zickefoose has hit upon a suet-based recipe that’s so popular among her birds, and so famed around the blogosphere, it’s colloquially been labeled “Zick Dough“.

Julie uses suet/lard, peanut butter, cornmeal, quick oats and flour in a 1:1:2:2:1 ratio. The resulting product resembles shortbread or peanut butter cookie dough.

I tried it out once, but either our birds didn’t go for it, or they just didn’t find it very quickly, and it received only moderate traffic. Meanwhile, I found it a little messy to handle and set out (though I’m sure there are ways around that, such as packaging into individual-serving containers).

Edit: Commenter Ruth reminded me that Julie had added a note about her suet dough on her blog a short while after the post that I linked to. In somewhat coincidental timing, she also posted about it again today (March 7). It seems her bluebirds – and those of others, it turns out – will become “addicted” to the high-fat, high-carb mix, eating it and very little else while the suet dough is available. This diet with poor nutritional value leads to bad things like gout or metabolic bone disease. So far, in all the posts I’ve seen her discuss it, it seems to be something restricted to bluebirds – the other species have enough sense to vary up their diet, I guess. Also, it’s more likely to be a problem in the summer than in the winter, it appears, though can and does occur at any time of year.

Julie’s solution, which she learned through another website that had been discussing suet doughs, was to add unmedicated chick starter to the suet. That is, the grain stuff that you can buy from agricultural feed stores for the purpose of growing chicks into chickens. And the unmedicated stuff, that doesn’t have antibiotics, etc, added. This chick starter is well-balanced for proper nutrition for growing chicks, and so has appropriate levels of vitamins/minerals/nutrients and the proper proteins that a bird should be getting for good health. Julie’s new recipe is suet/lard, peanut butter, cornmeal, quick oats, flour and chick starter, in a ratio of 1:1:1:2:1:2.

You can read the whole story at the post over at Julie’s blog.

American Tree Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadee at suet

In preparing my collected fat drippings into something appropriate for the birds, I wanted an end result that could be tucked into our suet cage with minimum mess or fuss (now, admittedly, it’s Dan who takes care of all the bird-feeding chores, but out of consideration I wanted it to be easy for him to put out). I felt suet cakes, rather than dough, were more appropriate to our arrangements here, which required a modification of the recipe. The ingredients weren’t all that different, I just changed out the flour and replaced it with birdseed.

I used suet/fat/lard, peanut butter, cornmeal, quick oats and birdseed in an approximately 3:1:1:2:4 ratio. Roughly. I didn’t actually measure at the time, I just melted down the fat and peanut butter and then poured stuff in till I reached the consistency I wanted, which was more of a thick slurry than an actual dough. Think the consistency of breakfast oatmeal, perhaps.

I poured this into plastic lunch containers (the square ones designed for sandwiches), which were the perfect size to fit into our suet cage. Then I put them into the freezer to solidify. When it was time to put one out, Dan could run a knife around the outside and pop it out. Any container would do, though, as long as the resulting cake was the size you wanted or needed. It might also be necessary to line/grease/flour the container to make getting the cake out easier.

Edit: Commenters brought to my attention that cooking fat may contain dioxines which are bad for the birds, so while the birds will probably not be eating giant quantities of suet, it may just be best to use something that hasn’t been cooked with. Also that hot suet poured into plastic containers may leach into the cake, unless you use BPA-free containers. If you have glass, that might be a better option.

American Tree Sparrow and White-breasted Nuthatch at suet

I posted something to my Facebook page mentioning the tree sparrows on the suet cakes, and had an interesting conversation with a couple of folks there. The first, one of British Columbia’s most esteemed naturalists, mentioned that his father, and now he, makes suet cakes using suet, peanut butter and cornmeal in a ratio of 2:1:1 and freezing it in the appropriate sizes. Apparently his birds are nuts about it.

Another friend, also from BC, interestingly, said she makes hers with fat, water, sugar and cornmeal in a 2:2:1:2 ratio, bringing the first three to a rolling boil before adding the cornmeal, and then throws in hulled sunflower seeds, currents, oatmeal or whatever seeds or nuts she might have handy.

American Tree Sparrow and White-breasted Nuthatch at suet

They both had interesting comments. The first said his son had done a science experiment when young to see what sort of suet birds like best. Although the details of the project are now lost to time, he recalled that chickadees and nuthatches preferred suet cakes with peanut butter, while Downy Woodpeckers liked it plain, and nobody much liked it with seeds or fruit in it if they had a choice of one without.

The second indicated that she picked up her fat from the grocery store for free, from their waste trimmings, which I thought was a very useful tip.

She also said she didn’t use peanut butter because she had been told it can potentially cause fungus to grow in the crops of birds. I hadn’t ever heard anything negative about peanut butter, and it worried me a bit because I did put it in my cakes, so I did some poking about the ‘net to see what I could turn up.

Peanut butter, it seems, receives quite a bit of concern from bird-feeders. One is that the sticky texture might cause birds to choke as they try to eat it, but there has been apparently no evidence to back up this concern. Another is that it might clog their nostrils, but again, no evidence, and I personally think birds are smarter than this anyway. Another was regarding the sugar and preservatives in peanut butter, but these have also not been shown to have any adverse affects on birds (just as they don’t in people).

I had a lot of trouble finding any mention of fungus in peanut butter, but finally turned up this page. Apparently the same fungus that can grow in stored peanuts when they’re left in humid places too long can also be found in peanut butter. The risk of contamination in peanut butter is significantly lower than in stored peanuts, however, and the sooner the peanuts are processed after being harvested, the lower the risk of any mold occurring in the peanut butter. The author points out that in this way store-brand peanut butter is actually safer than that made by natural food stores, as many of the latter store the peanuts and then grind them fresh in-store, leading to documented higher levels of the toxins in the peanut butter.

All that said – I think as long as you buy commercial peanut butter, there’s no more risk to the birds than there would be to you. If you feel safe eating it, then it should also be fine for your birds. And the birds sure love it.

Birds in your backyard

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Following up on yesterday’s post about bird irruptions, I wanted to talk a bit about attracting birds to your own yard.

One of the great things about living in the country is that you can put up a birdfeeder. Well, true, you can put up a birdfeeder just about anywhere, but you’re not going to attract much to the birdfeeder at your 10th-floor condo balcony, and even in the suburbs in town you’re primarily going to have the resident House Sparrows coming to call, though you may be fortunate enough to have some other variety as well depending on your location within the city and relative to good habitat patches. In the country, though, because that’s where most of the birds hang out, that’s also where you’ll get the most bang for your buck in putting out a feeder. You’ll also have good success if you live near a ravine or naturalized park, or in a mature area of town with lots of big trees and shrubby backyards. Basically, anywhere where you’re close to natural habitats.

Redpoll in snow

Feeders are great tools for both enjoying and learning about nature from the comfort of your own home. They allow you to bring a little of the wildlife up close to the house so you can peer out the windows without having to get bundled up into your woolen toque and mitts, down jacket and longjohns, to hike out into the sub-freezing temperatures. Even nature-lovers need a break now and then, and there’s nothing like sitting by the fire, sipping a hot chocolate, while the animals come to you.

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If you’ve never hung a feeder before and are looking for some tips, I would suggest starting with two types: a feeder with black-oil sunflower seed, and mixed seed scattered on the ground (or a platform feeder, if you felt like building or buying one). The particular feeder style you use to put out your sunflower seed isn’t especially important, although more birds can be accommodated by a house- or gazebo-style feeder than can be by a tube-style feeder, which is only really used by the smaller birds that can fit on the perches. Throwing the mixed seed on the ground, or on a platform feeder, attracts sparrows, doves, blackbirds and other ground-feeders that don’t usually come to hanging feeders.

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Black-oil sunflower seed is the variety of seed that probably attracts the greatest range of birds (perhaps slightly counter-intuitively, since you would think that would be the purpose of mixed seed, wouldn’t you?). Just about everything likes sunflower seed, because it’s so high in fat, and therefore energy. Striped sunflower seed is also good, but it’s a slightly larger seed, and so often can’t be eaten by smaller birds whose beaks aren’t designed to handle large seeds. Mixed seed usually contains one or both of these varieties, but in small quantities relative to the other types. Cracked corn, which appeals to doves, various varieties of millet, often safflower seeds, and a few other types, make up the bulk of the mixed seed mix.

Feeder1

If you have the room and inclination, and want to branch out into additional feeders, the third feeder I would suggest putting up is a suet feeder. Suet is usually some sort of fat, generally animal fat (such as what’s left in the pan after you make yourself bacon for breakfast), often, though not always, mixed with millet or mixed seed. It’s a very high energy source, and is a good replacement for insects. The birds who tend to visit suet the most are also the ones you’ll find foraging for bugs and larvae under tree bark or debris. Often these birds will also come to your seed feeders, but you’ll see more of them at the suet. You can buy commercially prepared suet, or make your own. Julie Zickefoose has posted a great recipe for home-made suet (it comes highly recommended by her backyard birds!).

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If this birdfeeding bug has really bitten you, add a nyger feeder to your collection. Nyger is thistle seed, and is more expensive and attracts a more specialized crowd of birds, but the crowds it attracts! You’ll never see a feeding frenzy like those that come to your nyger feeders. Nyger is a favourite among the many species of finch: redpolls and siskins (which I talked about in my previous post), goldfinches, and Purple and House Finches.

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In the warmer months, from May through about September (and maybe a month or so on either side, depending on where you live), you can also set out food for some of the migrant and summer birds. An easy dish to set out is fruit, such as orange halves or peeled bananas. Fruit eaters such as tanagers and orioles will come to these fruit dishes, and provide a delightful splash of brilliance to your yard.

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You can attract hummingbirds by putting out a special feeder (available in any feeder store) filled with a sugar-water mix (boil water and add sugar in a 1:4 sugar:water ratio). This mixture mimics the nectar these delightful little birds usually feed on. It’s important to remember to clean out these feeders regularly, as the sugar-water solution can get dirty, so they can be a bit more work than simply putting out seed, but are definitely worth it for the visitors you get. Orioles will occasionally come to visit hummingbird feeders as well, or you can purchase a specifically designed oriole feeder that you would fill with the same mixture.

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One last way to attract birds to your yard is to add features that will support them in some way. Berry bushes, seed-producing grasses and nectar-producing flowers are all great ways to provide food for birds. Shrubs and trees will provide cover from predators, as well as nesting spots. Putting out a birdbath will provide water and a place for birds to bathe (which in itself is a lot of fun to observe). Adding nestboxes provides nesting spots for birds that usually nest in trees or other cavities.

If you’d like to learn more about birdfeeders or bird-friendly yards, I recommend picking up some books from your local library or bookstore. There are many of books written on the subject, but here are a few examples:

The Bird-Friendly Backyard: Natural Gardening for Birds : Simple Ways to Create a Bird Haven by Julie Zickefoose

Bird Gardening: The complete Guide To Creating A Bird Friendly Habitat by Don and Lillian Stokes

Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Birdfeeding by Don and Lillian Stokes

For seed preferences, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s birdseed preferences chart.