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.

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!

A harbinger of spring

Edit: This post was recently included in the 70th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Earth, Wind & Water.

First starling of spring

The northeast got another dump of snow last night. Although it was only just lightly starting in the evening before I went to bed, by the time I got up there was a good eight inches on the ground, and it was still snowing with some conviction.

Snowfall

It finally began to taper off mid-morning. I happened to be at my parents’ for a few days of renovation work, so I didn’t have to go anywhere in it, but when my dad got home he said the driving was pretty slick on the way in to work. I helped my mom put the horses out in the fields; she normally takes them herself two at a time, but the younger two are very lively and with the slippery conditions she wasn’t keen about having a prancing horse at the end of each arm.

The feeders were very active this morning. Virtually every bird in the surrounding woods had come out to fuel up at the convenient food source while it was snowing. Surprisingly, I didn’t see the big flocks of redpolls that usually turn up in this weather; they seem to have traded off with American Tree Sparrows, which were unusually abundant.

First starling of spring

Mom and I were looking out the window at the activity when she commented, “what’s that dark thing in the tree, just a knot? Or is it a starling?” Sure enough, it was a starling. This is a very notable sighting for us (worth writing in my newly-started Nature Calendar!). Because my parents are out in the country, their starlings don’t stick around over the winter. They depart in the fall with the rest of the migrants, and then come back again early in the spring to nest in the eaves of the house and garage. There’re usually at least three pairs nesting here every summer.

First starling of spring

They’re the true harbinger of spring here. They arrive earlier than any other migrant, even the Red-winged Blackbirds, which are early arrivals. Unfortunately I don’t have a solid record of arrival dates over recent years. Shoulda been keeping a calendar… I’d be interested to know where they all go in the winter, whether they just skip down to the nearby town, or if they migrate some distance away.

Starling sneaking up on doves

I love starlings, they’re one of my favourite birds. This is due in part to my years in university, living in town, where during the winter they, and the House Sparrows, were the only signs of life for months. Their chattery song is very lively and upbeat, even when there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ve got lots of character, and I personally think their glossy irridescence is beautiful.

They aren’t so universally welcomed, however. Note these Mourning Doves are keeping an eye on this individual as she clambers around the tree foraging for edible bits. Starlings have a well-earned reputation as being bullies of the bird world. Although this one was alone, they usually move around in flocks in the winter, shooing other birds away from feeders when they move in to hoard all the food. They are definitely hogs when it comes to the good stuff, and has driven many a backyard bird feeder to “snob feeding” (to coin a Julie Zickefoose term). We don’t mind them here, however, since they’re so few in number.

Too close for comfort

The starling gets a little too close for comfort and the dove decides to move to a different perch. Starlings are also known for kicking more passive birds from nesting boxes. One of their main victims is the Purple Martin, but they’ll also kick out bluebirds, tree swallows, woodpeckers (including the hefty Northern Flicker), and just about any other bird that happens to have chosen a box the starling desires.

Starling and Blue Jay

Only the birds of similar size will challenge the starlings, as this Blue Jay prepares to do here. Blue Jays themselves are charismatic, bold and pushy, both with other birds…

Starling and Blue Jays

…and between themselves. The starling waits her turn.

I’m pretty sure this one’s a female. Starlings are neat because, although males and females have essentially the same plumage, during the winter and subsequent breeding season the “cere”, the soft fleshy part at the base of their bill, changes colour. Appropriately, the males turn blueish, and the females turn pinkish. Males also have nice, long, glossy throat feathers that they puff out and show off when singing. Incidentally, the white speckles you see on winter birds wear off over the winter so that the black, irridescent “summer plumage” is really just the same feathers they had all winter, minus the white tips.

Starling and cardinal

A female cardinal gives the suet a once-over. Cardinals rarely visit the suet, instead preferring the fat-rich sunflower seeds. A starling’s beak isn’t as well-designed to cracking open the hard shells of seeds, and their summer diet is primarily insects and berries. In the winter, the suet is their favourite. It’s not such a problem here, with just a few birds, but if you live in town and have a whole flock of them descend on your feeder, their powerful beaks can hack it apart and gobble it up amazingly quickly.

Their scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris. Back when the species was named, “vulgar” meant “common”, rather than ugly or unpleasant as it is often used now, so the scientific name basically meant “Common Starling”. I’m sure there are a lot of North American bird watchers who would also identify with the word’s other meaning, however.

Sunny day

Late morning the sun came out, and it was a beautifully bright day. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much time to enjoy it, working as I was.

I’m using my mom’s computer to post this evening. Most of my photos were a little underexposed because of the overcast, snowy conditions this morning, so I had to brighten them up a tad on the computer. Unfortunately, I do most of my photo editing in a different program at home, and I can’t seem to make Photoshop accomplish the same things, even though I appear to be using the same or similar command. So, because I was shooting through a window, some of these may seem a little cloudy, or the snow overexposed now; I just couldn’t seem to fix it, for some reason!

Birds in your backyard

Feeder5

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.

Feeder11

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.

Feeder7

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!).

Feeder2

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.

Feeder9

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.

Feeder8

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.

Feeder12

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.