When we think about feeding the birds, we often envision bird feeders full of sunflower seeds or other types of bird seed. However during the winter, suet can also be a valuable addition to our bird feeding stations.
Technically, suet is the hard fat that cows and sheep have around their kidneys and loins. This hard fat is what was originally used when feeding suet to the birds. Today other types of fat, including vegetable-based fats, are sometimes used when making suet for the birds. In the bird feeding world, these other fat-based bird food products are still called suet, even though they may not technically be made out of suet.
Because it is fat, suet is a high-energy food source for birds. The energy provided by the fat helps the birds stay warm during cold weather. (Black-oil sunflower seeds also have a high fat content and is why many of the same species that are attracted to suet feeders are also attracted to sunflower seeds.) Examples of some of the birds that are attracted to suet are woodpeckers, chickadees, wrens, titmice, jays, and nuthatches.
You can buy pre-made blocks of suet at most lawn and garden centers or even most big-box stores. Some commercially produced suet blocks will be plain, but most have other goodies such as seeds or berries mixed into the block. You can also make your own suet either out of animal fat (ask your local butcher for their fat trimmings) or from vegetable shortening. If you do an internet search for suet recipes, you’ll find a million different ones. However, never use grease leftover from cooking any type of meat, because it is too….well…greasy.
Birds stay warm in cold weather by fluffing up their feathers which creates air pockets between the feathers. The air pockets trap the bird’s body heat in the same way that wearing multiple layers of clothing keeps us warmer than a single layer of clothing. The problem with using leftover cooking grease is that the birds can get the grease smeared on their feathers which then prevents them from being able to fluff their feathers up to stay warm and dry in cold, wet weather. This is also why you never want to feed suet in warm weather. Even suet made with the right types of fat can begin to melt and get greasy as the temperatures rise. Not to mention, fat can go rancid in warm weather.
There are multiple different types of suet feeders. Again, you can either make your own or buy one. Probably the simplest suet feeders are mesh bags that you put balls or chunks of suet into and then hang the bag from a tree, shepherd’s pole, or hook on your porch. However, the most common types of suet feeders are wire cages built to hold a block of suet.
Sometimes the suet feeder will have a roof over it to help shield the suet from the weather. Some suet feeders are also designed so that the birds have to hang upside down in order to get to the suet. This design is said to keep starlings from eating the suet because they don’t like to eat upside down.
Raccoons and squirrels are also fond of suet, so be sure to secure your feeder well and ideally chose a feeder that allows you to latch the suet into the feeder. You can find bird feeders for sale that have suet feeders on either end of a traditional seed feeder. Unfortunately, the suet feeders on most of these are open at the top. This makes it easy for you to drop a new suet cake into the feeder, but it also makes it easy for a raccoon or squirrel to slide the cake out of the feeder and take off with the whole cake.
As with any type of bird feeder, suet feeders should be cleaned regularly. With suet feeders, you need to pay particular attention to cleaning up any leftover bits of fat that could go rancid.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.