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!


One amongst the redpolls


I had the coolest experience today. Just after lunch, I took a break from scraping old caulking off the sides of the bathtub in the washroom my parents are renovating to wander outside with a new close-up lens (really more like a filter, or a magnifying glass) I picked up today for my camera. I was excited about the new lens and wanted to test it out, so I pulled on my toque and mitts and cozy down jacket and stepped out to brave the -8oC weather.

I started out by going around to the back garden, looking for seedheads or other interesting things to photograph. I paused to take a picture of an old vine flower that resembled a daddy-longlegs with too many limbs, then another of a coneflower with a tophat of snow. As I was standing there a handful of Common Redpolls flew into the crabapple tree on the far side of the garden, clearly intending to come down to the feeders once the coast was clear.


How many birds can you count?

They looked pretty perched in the bare branches, set against the dark green of the spruce trees behind, so I took the filter off the front of the camera and started taking a few shots. And then, as I stood there, a few more swooped in, and then a few more, and then in a chittering flurry of wings the whole flock swooped down to the nyjer feeders, not six feet away from me.

I stood stock-still. The redpolls were a little jumpy, and every minute or two they’d all take off again with a swoosh to perch in the branches of the crabapple. They’d stay there for about 20 or 30 seconds, and then come back down when they felt sure whatever perceived threat wasn’t actually. They were so close, I actually had to zoom out to get all the birds in the flock into the frame.


Redpolls are a very pushy bunch. They squabble over perches at the feeders, often chasing each other off when there aren’t enough perches to go around. With this flock there were probably about 60 birds who had to share two 8-perch nyjer feeders. Most of the birds ended up on the ground under the feeders searching the hull litter for seeds, but a lucky few had the luxury of sitting beside a constant supply of unhulled seeds.

Common Redpolls

They’ll even turn upside down on their perches to snap at their neighbour if they feel he’s getting too close.


And they’re not afraid to physically push somebody off if they feel they can get away with it.

Common Redpolls

There were a few birds in the flock that stood out as unusual. A number of adult males, with their gorgeous rosy-pink breasts, were in the flock, but this one in particular caught my eye. A real uber-male, with a deep rosy wash through most of his feathers and even rosy on his rump, where most adult males are simply pale. I think this male might be of the “Greenland” subspecies (they breed on Greenland and a couple of the northern Canadian islands), rather than the usual “mainland” subspecies. The Greenland birds are on the whole larger, browner and stockier. And possibly rosier in adult males, too, from the looks of this bird. There were a few Greenland birds in the flock, but this was the only adult male I noticed.


Many of the characteristics of the below bird lead me to think it may be a Hoary Redpoll, a very closely related species to the Common. Hoaries tend to breed a little further north, although their range overlaps, and both species are far north relative to here. Hoaries average paler (can be subtle in first-winter birds), with thinner streaking, fewer markings on the undertail coverts and rump, and a shorter, stubbier bill. This one has all the markings except the bill isn’t noticably stubby (a good side-by-side comparison is shown here).


I stood out there among the redpolls for perhaps 20 minutes, watching them squabble, and come and go, and come again. I was there long enough for my legs and fingers to start to go numb (but my upper body was nice and toasty in the wonderful down jacket I got for Christmas). I was there long enough for the redpolls to start to ignore my casual movements. I could turn to look from one feeder to the other without flushing them, or shift my weight from one foot to the other, shuffle to reorient my body, lift my camera to my eye. In fact, I was buzzed a couple times, and one bird even perched for two or three seconds on the hand holding my camera to my face, before flying over to try for a perch. It was only three or four inches from my eye! I was reluctant to go back in, but in the interest of avoiding frostbite, and because there was still lots of work to be done indoors, I waited for the flock to return to the trees and then slowly turned and headed back inside.