Not so long ago, feeding birds was a winter-only activity. The thinking was that during the coldest time of the year (in snowbelt regions at least), we need to provide birds with extra energy in order for them to survive. While there is some truth to that, mostly we feed birds -- summer or winter -- because it's fun. Bird feeding of any kind is less an act of charity than a garden indulgence, like raising a particularly fine perennial flower.
Suet, in particular, has traditionally been a winter-only bird food. The use of suet -- the hard fat around the kidneys and loins of cattle and sheep -- was limited to cold weather because it quickly turned rancid at temperatures above 70? F. Enter the ready-to-use suet cake. The suet in suet cakes is rendered, or cooked, so it becomes less prone to melting and spoiling, and then is made into pressed cakes. They come shaped to fit most suet cages, in various "flavors" so you can determine which ones birds in your area prefer, and in ingenious packages that are not messy to handle.
Suet is a good addition to garden feeding stations because it attracts several bird species that rarely visit a seed feeder. For instance, most species of woodpeckers -- downy, hairy, red-bellied, even the occasional pileated, the largest of the North American woodpeckers -- rarely visit seed feeders but are regular suet diners. Lucky suet providers might also host creepers, kinglets, warblers, and wrens, none of which typically visit seed feeders. Some species -- including chickadees, jays, nuthatches, and titmice -- will take advantage of both kinds.
Wherever you live, late winter into early spring is a great time to try suet cakes in your garden. While you're enjoying the spring bulbs in bloom, add to the action in your garden by including a suet feeder. Many birds become very active at this time, establishing territories and building nests, and in many areas natural food supplies may still be low.
Animal fat is an important source of extra calories for the birds. It can be set out as is or rendered into cakes to include other goodies such as seeds and nuts. Though beef fat is most common, the term suet has come to mean any fat trimmings from livestock, including lard (rendered pig fat).
Homemade Suet Cakes
Prepared suet cakes are popular for their convenience, but if you make your own (see recipe below), you're not limited to a purchased feeder to dispense the food. For instance, you can smear a homemade mixture into the opened scales of a pinecone, then hang the cone from a tree branch. Or drill numerous 3/4-inch-wide, 1-inch-deep holes into a small log. Attach a screw-eye to one end of the log for hanging, and fill the holes with the suet mixture.
The basic ingredients will be familiar, though the specific proportions can vary. All suet feed for birds combines fats, flour, and usually a sweetener. Experiment by adding raisins, sunflower seeds, nuts, or other ingredients.
1 cup lard (no substitutions)
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
2 cups quick-cooking oats
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
In a 2-quart pan, melt the lard and peanut butter over medium heat, then stir in the oats, cornmeal, flour, and sugar. Press the mixture into square freezer containers about 1-1/2 inches deep. Refrigerate until cool, then cut into cakes, seal in plastic wrap, and store in the freezer.
Ready-Made Suet Cakes
Many kinds of ready-made mixtures are available. One company, C&S Products of Dodge, Iowa, markets 31 different kinds with names like Almond Treat and Woodpecker Delight; the "treats" include proportionately more suet and the "delights" more grain. But in either case, the suet cakes are safe to use in summer temperatures as high as 100° F. Because ingredients vary, prices span a range, but most cakes cost $2 to $3.
Don't confuse suet cakes with similarly shaped seed blocks. These are seed mixes in which the seed is essentially glued together with gelatin, rendering the seed somewhat less messy and, in some cases, more convenient to dispense than when loose. To provide easy access to protein, and to attract suet-loving birds, be sure the product you put out is in fact suet.
A great variety of suet dispensers is available, not including the kinds like pinecones or logs you fashion yourself. Most common are simple wire cages sized and shaped to fit one commercial suet cake. But all types work well and discourage squirrels and what some people consider less-desirable bird species (blackbirds, grackles, and starlings) from invading.
If these or other suet thieves (raccoons and possums, even dogs, cats, and bears) appear and take over, your dispenser needs to be a little more creative. For instance, Duncraft offers Suet Haven ($22). It allows smaller woodpeckers and nuthatches to reach in but thwarts larger birds and most animals. Another approach is to shield the suet cake from all sides but the bottom, thus excluding birds that typically don't feed while upside down, such as starlings and grackles (Lyric's Selective Suet Holder, $17).
While you might place some seed feeders in full sun in an open location, suet dispensers are best in or near a tree and out of full sun to help prevent the suet from melting.
Join the Birdhouse Network
Do you have a birdhouse in your garden? Become part of the The Birdhouse Network (TBN), a continent-wide birdhouse monitoring project. Developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and funded in part by the National Science Foundation, TBN collects valuable information from participants about the birds they see in and around their birdhouses. To get started in TBN, only one birdhouse, which you provide, is necessary. For an annual fee of $15, you receive a subscription to Birdscope, access to the data entry portion of the Lab's Web site, and membership to an electronic mailing list where you can interact with other birdhouse landlords and with scientists at the ornithology lab. For more information or to sign up, call (800) 843-2473.
Ithaca, New York-based Alison Wells is director of communications and public outreach at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Photography by Michael MacCaskey (top) and John Goodman (bottom)