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!