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Winter Bird Feeding with Suet

To say our weather has turned cold is an understatement. Last week, while sledding with my children my pants froze! We did not last long on the sledding hill that day. When I open the door to let out our dog Murphy, he looks up at me with what I can only describe as a "You've got to be kidding me" facial expression.

Despite the dogs and his owner's hasty retreats out of the cold, there is one group of animals that seem to do quite well in this frigid weather – birds. Looking out my window in the morning, I see Cardinals feathers so fluffed and fat; they remind of a red furry baseball. The woodpeckers and chickadees are a flurry of activity. I watch as the blue jays chase away the nuthatch and titmice. Watching the spectacle at the winter bird feeder enthralls me to no end. The birds seem to take the cold weather in stride.

I only feed birds in the winter, and I only feed with suet. Why winter? My biggest reason for feeding just in winter is the colorful display of birds in an otherwise drab and dreary garden. Of course, feeding birds in the winter does provide an alternative food source during a time when food can be scarce. Winter bird food supplies critical calories to assist birds in regulating their body temperature. Moreover, activity at the bird feeder declines once spring arrives as natural food sources become abundant once again.

Why only suet? When we used birdseed during the winter, it did attract many birds, but it also seemed to draw a lot of rodents like voles and squirrels. (Yes, squirrels are rodents. Just imagine a squirrel with a hairless tail. What comes to mind? A rat!) Once the rodents moved in, the snakes weren't far behind. So mainly, I avoid birdseed to limit prey for snakes.

Suet is also an incredibly easy method for feeding birds. Suet is high-quality animal or vegetable fat in a solid square 'cake' containing various seeds and dried fruit. All you need to do is hang the suet cake on a hook outside and watch the show commence. I also hang suet in large shrubs and trees to give birds a bit more cover when feeding. Keep in mind winter-feeding songbirds are prey for Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. Also, my dog Murphy loves suet cakes. I've caught that canine attempting to climb up my lilac shrub to get to the suet. I make sure to keep suet feeders at about eye level or higher to discourage Murphy and others critters.

You can purchase suet at various locations. Often our local grocery stores and garden centers will carry suet during the winter months. I tend to find the most extensive selection of suet at birdseed suppliers and local farm stores. Suet comes with the mesh bag or wire cage needed to hang it outside. You can purchase refill suet cakes sometimes for less than a dollar. It can't get any easier!

The "Marvel Meal" is a homemade suet recipe that is fun for children (and adults) to make. Press the peanut butter mixture into holes of a log or smear it directly on tree trunks. Marvel Meal can be frozen in blocks and placed in suet feeders or on a feeder tray.

Recipe for Marvel Meal (source Penn State Extension)

  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 4 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • One handful sunflower seeds (optional)

Birds that feed on suet are often insect-eaters, but I have seen many seed-eating birds at our suet feeders. Suet cakes are ideal for cling feeders, which are birds that cling to the trunk of a tree in search of insects, but many different types of birds will feed on suet. Birds I often see at our suet feeders are woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatch, blue jays, titmice, wrens, and even cardinals. European starlings can pose a problem on occasion. You can purchase bottom feeding suet cages that only permit birds to hang upside down to access the suet, a pose that European starlings do not prefer.

Hang feeders at a vantage you can see from inside your home, but place it no more than ten feet away from protective cover. Enjoy these cold days of winter by attracting birds with suet feeders and watching the display of birds from the comfort of your cozy home.

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