By Terry W. Johnson
Every time I go to the grocery store, I am reminded of the fact that we are offered more food choices than ever before.
For example, not long ago buying a can of baked beans was a cinch. If you wanted to purchase a few cans of Bush's Baked Beans, you steered your shopping cart up to the grocery shelves stocked with baked beans, picked out a few cans and went about your business. This was easy because at that time Bush’s only marketed one variety of baked beans. Nowadays you have to sift through 13 types to find the flavor you like.
This trend has since spread to companies that manufacture wild bird foods. If you have tried to buy a cake of suet or suet-based bird pudding lately, you know what I mean. When suet first hit the market, only pure beef suet was available. This high-energy food was sold in a rectangular cake. Today, though, if you go into a store that specializes in wild bird-related products you will find that suet is now sold in a variety of flavors and shapes. Let's examine this broad range of choices.
Suet is nothing more than the extremely hard fat that forms around the kidneys and loins of cattle and sheep. The very best suet is taken from cattle. This fat can be offered to birds without being processed or after it is rendered. Since it has become very difficult to find a butcher willing to save suet for use as bird food, many people simply buy rendered suet that is commercially available.
The popularity of suet-based bird foods is illustrated by the findings of Cornell University's FeederWatch Survey, which is designed to assess bird feeding habits of Americans and Canadians. The data shows that 54 percent of people who participate in the continent-wide survey offer suet to the birds at their feeders. The only foods that surpass suet in popularity are black oil sunflower seeds (70 percent) and niger, or nyjer, seed (62 percent). Bird puddings, most of which are suet-based, ranked fifth, at 32 percent.
The Many Faces of Suet
Although suet is fed throughout the year, it is most often put out for birds in the winter. Suet is particularly attractive to birds that consume large amounts of insects. This list includes, but is not limited to, woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, starlings, wrens, brown creepers, ruby and golden-crowned kinglets, warblers (pine, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped), house finches, bluebirds, and northern cardinals.
Typically, suet is fed in a rectangular wire cage either attached to a tree or pole or suspended from a shepherd's hook. It can also be smeared onto the trunks of trees or pine cones. Another popular way to feed suet is to stuff it into large holes drilled into short, small logs. The logs are then suspended from a limb or other support.
Suet is now also available in other forms such as large, 3- to 4-inch balls. These are offered to birds in a pyramid-shaped wire-mesh feeder.
You can make your bird feeding area a little more festive by displaying suet molded into holiday-themed shapes. Two favorite shapes are hearts for Valentine's Day and shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day.
Suet plugs designed to slip into special log feeders can be purchased, as well. Trays and dishes are recommended by some manufactures that sell suet shreds resembling earthworms. Suet crumbles and pellets are available to discriminating purchasers. One woman told me that the pellets are popular with bluebirds.
However, bird puddings are becoming the rage with bird feeding enthusiasts. Suet-based puddings contain everything from peanuts and peanut butter to a variety of nuts—such as pecans, almonds and walnuts—and fruits, including apples, oranges, pomegranate, raisins and cherries. Other bird puddings contain such additives as peanut butter and freeze-dried insects, from crickets to mealworms.
Many bird puddings are packed with seeds. The list millet, sunflower seeds, cracked corn and safflower seeds. Homemade bird puddings often include grits, oatmeal and even cornmeal.
Those of us who are plagued with squirrels, raccoons or opossums can bring home bird puddings that are purported to discourage these hungry marauders from the puddings or suet. These products are laced with bits of hot pepper.
Choose the Food That Fits
With so many choices, what are the best? The answer depends on your goal.
If you want to supply birds with the most nutritious offering, feed them plain suet. Likewise, if it is your desire to attract the most birds, buy a bird pudding that contains peanut butter or peanuts. Believe me, I would be surprised if any other suet-based product outperforms this in your backyard.
When you use bird puddings, however, there are trade-offs. One is that the puddings with cracked corn and other seed additives provide food that is already available in your seed feeders. Seeds such as cracked corn also attract what many people consider less-desirable birds, such as starlings and house sparrows. You will also find that bird puddings have a tendency to fall apart in rainy weather: This can be wasteful and expensive.
Before you head to the store to buy one of these products, become an informed consumer. When tempted by a product simply because it has a name that strongly suggests it is a bird wonder-food, read the label. Pay particular attention of the amount of fat it contains.
The best foods are about 95 percent fat. Some of the cheaper, less nutritious varieties contain as little as 15 percent fat. This is important because foods high in fat provide an extra boost of energy to birds trying to survive frigid weather conditions.
Whatever shape or flavor you choose, you cannot go wrong offering the backyard feathered neighbors suet or bird pudding. They can help supply the nutritional needs of many bird species, including some that rarely visit your seed feeders. As such, adding suet can provide the opportunity to see birds that might not otherwise use your backyard in the winter.
Who would have ever thought that buying baked beans, suet and bird puddings could be so confusing?
Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”