Out My Backdoor: High-fat Foods: Bad for Us, Great for Birds!

By Terry W. Johnson

While most of us are trying to reduce the amount of fat in our diets, many of our backyard bird neighbors relish bird-feeder offerings laden with animal fats. Birds will eat the fat of cattle, hogs and other animals. However, the fatty food most commonly fed backyard birds is beef fat also known as suet.

The very best suet is found around the kidneys and loins of cattle. When rendered, this fat won't become rancid or melt in warm weather as quickly as other fats. The best way to obtain this superior food is to ask your favorite butcher to save it for you. These trimmings can be obtained for little or no cost.

Suet that hasn't been rendered can be cut into chunks and fed to birds in hardware cloth feeders, mesh bags, plastic berry baskets and rubber-coated soap dishes. However, it is often best to render the suet before feeding it to birds. To render suet, begin by cutting the fat into small pieces. Place the chunks in the top section of a double boiler. Fill the bottom pan with water and cook over a low heat. If the suet gets too hot, it can catch fire.

Once the fat has liquefied, pour it into molds such as tuna fish cans, jar lids or cupcake pans. If you want to add seeds, nuts, fruit pieces, crushed eggshells, brown sugar, flour, cornmeal, dogwood berries, oatmeal or other foods to the suet, do so at this time. Allow the suet to cool and store it in the freezer until you are ready to use it.

Great suet feeders can be made by dipping pine cones into the liquefied suet. Then attach string to the suet-dipped pine cones and tie them to trees in your backyard.

If you don't want to take on the chore of making your own suet, this high-energy food can be bought in rectangular cakes. Commercially-made suet comes in flavors ranging from plain to types laced with berries, grit, peanuts and other additives.

It has been my experience that plain store-bought suet is not a preferred food for birds. In my backyard, a block of plain suet will last for weeks. However, one flavored with peanuts will disappear in a week or two.

For an overlooked source of wild bird food try venison fat. I have watched dark-eyed juncos feeding on bits of deer fat found on the ground near the deer weighing shelter at Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area near Forsyth. If you are a hunter, save a supply of deer fat when your dress your deer. If you don't hunt deer, have a friend who does save the fat for you. Since venison fat congeals at room temperature, it resists melting in a suet feeder in all but the warmest weather.

In the past, suet has been fed to birds almost exclusively in the winter. This is because it melts and spoils rapidly when temperatures soar above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But surveys have revealed that 32 percent of those folks that feed birds during the summer offer suet to their backyard neighbors. In fact, suet ranks third behind sunflower and mixed seed as the most popular foods offered to birds in summer.

One thing I like about feeding suet in the summer is that it will attract birds that normally would not visit my feeder. This past summer, for example, brown thrashers, Carolina wrens, gray catbirds and eastern bluebirds vied with titmice, Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers and common grackles for the peanut-flavored suet feeders I provided.

Problems associated with warm temperatures can be overcome by hanging suet in the shade or refrigerating it at night. This will also eliminate raccoons, opossums and, in North Georgia, bears from raiding your suet.

While suet is used to provide food for insect-eating birds, it is also consumed by a variety of seed-eating birds. More than two-dozen birds including Carolina chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, American robins, brown thrashers, yellow-rumped and pine warblers, brown creepers, northern cardinals, summer tanagers, chipping, white-throated and fox sparrows, purple finches, northern mockingbirds, woodpeckers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, golden crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets, and purple finches.

If you want to expand the clientele using your bird feeders, add suet to the menu. The new entree will be quickly gobbled up by feathered diners that don't have to worry about the fat in their diets.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources Nongame Conservation Section.