When winter snows cover the ground the opportunities for foraging on the forest floor have past. Birds need to tighten their territories to conserve energy and use their most reliable and ample food sources not hidden by a blanket of white. This can be favourite grasses, shrubs, and trees that offer food … or it could be your backyard feeder.
Suet is a specialized winter food; a high energy, high fat food source that offers many species what they are seeking. Think of the insect-eating birds visiting your garden in winter – and those are the birds who will appreciate suet. Worms dive deep underground in fall to avoid the ground freezing. Many insects die, lie dormant or buried over winter. What’s a bird to do?
Chickadees, blue jays, wrens, all types of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and even cardinals and goldfinches appreciate suet. Just think how this flurry of colour and activity will liven up your views in the cold months!
Suet is an easy-to-maintain feed. Most often square blocks or ‘cakes’ of suet are put into coated wire-cage feeders and you only replace it when it’s gone. Place the feeders a few feet from the ground (about face height at least) to draw the most birds. In terms of maintenance, you can rinse the coated metal feeders with hot water when you add fresh suet, and check the block weekly if it’s getting a little warm to ensure it hasn’t got mold or gone rancid. In the cold months, suet cakes last until the last bit has been devoured.
If you want more options for feeding with suet, consider a great family project of building a suet log. This is the most natural way for birds to eat ‘tree insects’ and it’s fun to watch birds feeding while clinging to them. Or fill mesh bags (the kind onions or garlic come in) with suet balls and hang them from your shrubs. You could shape suet balls around a loop of natural string and hang it from a tree branch. Or collect some pine cones, hot-glue a string, twine or ribbon to the top, and pack soft suet into the cones before ‘decorating’ a tree. You can even simply rub suet on a rough-textured tree trunk.
Some people feed suet all year round – depending on the type and the mixture. I feed suet from early November to early April. Many well-intentioned people stop feeding winter foods in early March when we begin to think of spring, however for the birds this is the most challenging time of the winter. The end of winter often means that birds are on their last body fat, their natural food sources may be exhausted, and they still need energy to stay warm and safe with the late-winter storms and cold fronts. Nature hasn’t yet provided them with sufficient insects and other edibles.
Real suet is made with tallow which is rendered beef fat that is solid at room temperature. Using this as the base is the kindest to bird friends since it is the same nutrition and protein base as eating worms. Alternative bases such as lard can’t match this nutritionally: there is definitely a difference in the quality of suet. However be aware that the ‘summer suet’ varieties likely won’t be tallow-based. Other ingredients in suet are fruits, nuts, seeds, bird seed, rolled oats, and sometimes peanut butter. If you are feeding, be kind and read the label.
Are you adventurous enough to make your own? You can purchase suet from the butcher (and keep in mind that it’s different from beef drippings and other beef fats – though you can add those to your own recipe as long as they are pure and not with cooking spices) and create your own blend with (unsalted) nuts, seeds, raisins, and dried fruit. With home-made suet, ensure that you keep it in the freezer and use it only as you need it to avoid it becoming rancid. Home-made suet is only good in the winter since it will melt (and go ‘off’) in warmer temperatures. Suet-alternatives (those with a base of vegetable shortening or peanut butter) are easier to make and store. It’s ‘easy cooking’ that is a wonderful lesson and activity for kids for school holidays.
One benefit to feeding suet-eaters in your garden in winter is that they will eat your garden insects in the summer and visit your garden year round!
Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here
Making Your Own Suet:
How Suet It Is ~ © 2016 Natasha G