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PHOTO: Susan Brackney
Although some avid birders like to offer suet year-round, winter is prime season to provide birds with a suet cake. The fat-rich food helps nuthatches, wrens, woodpeckers and many other types of birds stock up on calories when their usual go-to foods aren’t nearly as prevalent.
Still, putting out a few suet feeders and keeping them stocked with commercially prepared suet cakes can get pricey—especially if you spring for the extra-fancy kinds.
Fortunately, making your own suet cakes is fairly easy and inexpensive. What’s more, by varying the ingredients they contain, you can attract specific bird species. The first step? Obtaining a good source of rendered animal fat. You may be able to purchase clean, rendered suet from your local butcher, or you can render your own.
To make a basic suet cake, you’ll need two cups of clean, rendered animal fat. (If you’d rather not use animal fat, there are vegetarian “suet” cake recipes.) You’ll also need:
- 1 cup of peanut butter
- 2 cups of cornmeal
- 2 cups of quick oats
- Any nuts, dried fruits, insects or seeds you plan to include
Use a food processor to pulverize the dried, quick oats. Combine this with the cornmeal and set these dry ingredients aside.
Next, mix the animal fat and peanut butter in a heavy pan. Place on stovetop, stirring constantly over medium heat. Once melted and thoroughly combined, remove the wet mixture from heat and pour into dry ingredients. Mix well. Carefully fold in extra goodies like dried fruits and insects now.
While the mixture is still soft and warm, spoon it into muffin tins, gelatin molds or cake pans. You can also apply the mixture to the nooks and crannies of an upside down pinecone. (Try to keep about an inch at the top of the pinecone as clean as possible to accommodate a hanger later.)
Refrigerate your suet creations overnight. If you used a large cake pan, cut the hardened suet into individual rectangles sized to fit inside your suet feeder. Store any extra suet cakes in the freezer until you’re ready to put them out.
Who Likes What?
If you’re mostly interested in attracting woodpeckers, you can do this with the basic suet cake recipe sans add-ins. (And by using creamy rather than crunchy peanut butter, you may be a little less likely to attract starlings and blue jays.)
Want to attract northern flickers? Make the basic recipe with creamy peanut butter and add dried berries and mealworms to the mix. Looking for bluebirds? Load up on dried mealworms and crickets. If you’re hoping for orioles, mix in lots of dried fruit.
Keen on bringing in lots of different kinds of birds at once? Opt for crunchy peanut butter instead of smooth and add cracked corn, sunflower seeds, dried fruit and insects.
As you try different ingredient combinations, keep track of the kinds of birds that come. In time, you’ll notice that some cakes are more popular than others and you can make adjustments accordingly.
It’s worth mentioning that starlings can decimate a new suet cake in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, there are ways to ensure the birds you intended to feed actually get to enjoy the treats you’ve set out.
If you happen to be around when the starlings mob your suet, take down the suet-filled feeder, bring it inside, and simply rehang it in a day or two. This can give your target species a second chance to find the suet before the starlings do.
If starlings continue to be a problem, make getting at the suet more difficult for them by changing the way your feeder is oriented. Starlings can easily land on vertically hanging suet feeders. However, unlike smaller woodpeckers and nuthatches, starlings cannot hang upside down to feed on suet.
Take advantage of this difference by mounting your suet feeding cage horizontally to the underside of a lateral tree branch. (I use a padded bungee cord for this to avoid injuring the tree.)
Vertical hanging suet cages can afford better visibility, so, if you’d prefer, you can suspend individual suet cages inside a second, homemade cage.
Use 1 1/2-inch wire mesh to create an exterior cage, then hang the suet feeder inside. Small birds like downy woodpeckers should be able to get inside to feed, but starlings are too large to gain entry.
Just keep in mind that larger birds such as pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers will also likely be excluded with this setup.