Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Chewing the fat with suet, an old-school backyard bird feeding secret

Let’s talk about fat, one of the strangest things we put out to attract cute birds to our yard. Like birds, I myself enjoy fat, and I often ask butchers for untrimmed steaks and chops. I can see why birds find it so tasty. But for creatures with a high metabolism that spend long dark nights in cold temperatures, it makes sense that it’s an important source of food.

Fat is sometimes referred to as suet, which is technically beef liver fat that has been rendered or melted down and sometimes mixed with seeds, fruit, nuts or even insects (ewww).

When I was a kid, my mom would get scraps of beef fat free from her local butcher. I remember her riotous indignation the day the butcher said it was now 20 cents per pound. She threatened to quit buying it, but she had a kid who loved to watch birds and especially liked woodpeckers so her threats remained hollow. She did however save bacon grease in a coffee can all year and offer that in the winter to birds and some oh-so-happy morbidly obese fox squirrels. 

Over the years, bird food manufactures have noticed that people who feed birds like to offer suet and now render the fat for you and mixed in some flavors. They sell it in convenient cakes or plugs to fit nicely into the cages or logs they also happen to manufacture. Flavors vary from peanut butter, cherry or even… insect. I managed a wild bird feeding store for years, and there were definitely preferences. We sold far more peanut or peanut butter-flavored suets than any other flavor. I think some of that depends on what people are feeding the neighborhood. Woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches certainly prefer nut-flavored suets to plain or seed suets. However, if you are the only one in the neighborhood offering suet, the birds will settle for just about any flavor. However, if you neighbor is putting out nut-flavored suets, birds will flock to that until it’s gone, then check out other flavors. 

One of the things I’ve always found interesting about bird feeding is that there’s very little regulation. Oh sure, there are laws against selling seed for birds contaminated in pesticides. But as far as ingredients go, you list them however you like and it doesn’t matter the quantity. I was never a fan of the suets with the flavor name of “high energy” or even some of the fruit ones because yeah, there might be some fruit flavoring and the fat is high energy, but if you cut that suet cake open you might be surprised to find all sorts of seeds that aren’t high on the preference list for woodpeckers and chickadees – like white millet or cracked corn. However, if those seeds are cheaper, they make a cheap filler ingredient allowing the suet manufacturer to skimp on the fat and nuts. 

Some people prefer the no frills method of suet by offering chunks of unrendered fat usually found in the freezer section of the grocery store. Heck, up at Sax Zim Bog, Minn., birders hang up deer torsos donated by hunters, and the gray jays, boreal chickadees, and woodpeckers peck away the fat all winter. Many hunters have done this, though if you live in an urban area, you may have a neighbor who finds that unsettling or accuses you of attracting coyotes. 

Some people like to concoct their own recipes, and there’s a very well known recipe affectionately called Zick Dough. The recipe of peanut butter, cornmeal and shortening floated around for years, but naturalist and artist Julie Zickefoose tweaked it into a nutritional version and offers it year round. I’ve tried making a few different recipes of suet and the birds do love it, but it makes my house smell like a Minnesota State Fair French fry booth, and the aftermath is no fun to clean up. So I’m content to purchase the ready-made cakes in the store.

Zick Dough Recipe

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