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Adventures with suet

This piece originally ran as a StarTribune Home and Garden column in 2004

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Suet feeders

I have paid good money for a lot of birding paraphernalia, but never, ever have I purchased a suet feeder.

Suet feeders are not something you find in Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks, right? I have felt from Day One that I always could build a better suet feeder. 

My progress toward this goal was inhibited for several years by events beyond my control. The first problem was bears. The years we lived in the woods we had both massive bear problems and massive-bear problems.

One of the reasons the bears were so big was they ate our suet. As best I could tell, they ate the feeders, too. We would hang them, fill them, and never see them again. 

Eventually, I put the suet atop a very tall PVC post. It was hard to fill that feeder, dangerous, actually, but we lost less to bears. Our small dog, however, would eat the suet chips that fell to the ground. The suet made her sick as, well, sick as a dog.

We moved back to The Cities. We fenced part of the yard for the dog. This left me with suet opportunity. Favoring the complex over the simple, I built a large suet basket of wood and hardware cloth, fastened a pulley to a high stout limb on our willow tree, and hung the basket from a rope. I could lower the basket to be filled, then raise it high to please the woodpeckers. What I wanted was elevation.

The basket swayed in the breeze. Sometimes it swung in the wind. For those of you who wish to keep woodpeckers from bothering your house, this feeder design comes highly recommended. It swung there for a year, woodpeckerless. Suet lasts forever, so I kept hoping. But eventually we had cadaverous suet and no hope, so I took it down.

Our dog, sadly, no longer was with us. That did, however, open additional and better suet territory. I went to work.

Suet, in case you do not know, comes from cows. It once was a byproduct of cutting meat. Suet was there, attached to certain parts of the animal. The cow being dead, suet’s only purpose was goodwill. You went into the meat market to see the man smiling at you over the display case, happy to serve you in his little white cap and his big white apron. “Do you have any suet today?” you asked.

“Just a minute, sir, while I check the cooler,” he would say, returning, smiling even more, to wrap your suet in white butcher paper, marking it in black crayon with a big NC – no charge. Free suet. 

Then, the butchers read the same stories you and I have seen about birdwatching and birdfeeding being easier than golf and better for your knees than running, the next Big Thing. 

“Right!” said the butchers. Now we pay a buck forty-nine a pound for suet shrink-wrapped in plastic that would stop a bullet. 

Anyway, you want a suet feeder that is attractive to its intended audience, simple to fill, deters predators, and does not cost much, if anything at all. Actually, it is not hard to imagine da Vinci working on this.

My feeders have gone through several design changes. I introduce new models at a pace that would frighten Detroit. The latest has as its base a 2x8 cedar board 30 inches long. Half-inch hardware cloth forms the basket. (Check the photo.)

Key to this new and improved design is a series of three-inch-square openings cut from the hardware cloth, one on each side, one or two in the front. This allows the birds to get at the suet without having to peck through the half-inch wire mesh. It does make a difference. The bill marks in the suet are concentrated in those open areas.

I attach the rig to a large tree with screws. I have three suet feeders in place now, two six feet off the ground, one 15 feet high. The higher feeder is much preferred by woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and the Brown Creeper that HAVE BEEN FEEDING here this winter. The higher feeder particularly is favored by Pileated Woodpeckers. 

One day we had three of those crow-sized woodpeckers in the yard, all looking for suet. It does take an extension ladder to fill the high feeder, that’s true, but it doesn’t move when the wind blows, it was inexpensive to build, and three Pileateds have been here at one time. That was a da Vinci moment.

It does take an extension ladder to fill it, that’s true, but it doesn’t move when the wind blows, and it was free if you don’t count the cost of material. Now, I need to make good friends with a butcher or two, someone who will slip me a little suet on the side. The pun is intended.

It does take an extension ladder to fill it, that’s true, but it doesn’t move when the wind blows, and it was free if you don’t count the cost of material. The best part, though, is the visits by the Pileateds. They trumpet as they arrive in the yard. I’d even pay for that. 

Downy and Red-bellied woodpeckers at suet feeder
 

Have you ever fed pasta to birds?

Feeding birds unusual things? Like pasta? Why not.

 

Bill Thompson III, editor of the excellent magazine “Bird Watcher’s Digest,” recently offered his readers a list of what he considers tops in the weird-food category. 

 

Meat scraps. This is a clean, safe substitute for road kill. (Road kill is a raptor favorite.) Same content, different source. Put it on a platform where the meat-eating mammals in your backyard can’t get at it. (You might not see these animals, but they are there; most are small and nocturnal.) 

 

Grape jelly. We all know about this as an attractant for orioles and House Finches. We offer our jelly, a spoonful at a time, on a plastic lid, right next to the orange half stuck on a nail. The lid is nailed to a short piece of 1x6 pine into which the nail is pounded. Jam the orange over the nail head.

 

Holiday nuts. The stale nuts, which often are available at the end of the season when your politely offered assortment of nuts has gone pretty much unnoticed. If salty, shake them gently in a paper bag to remove some of the salt.

 

Eggshells. This is an important source of calcium for female birds, particularly in nesting season. Rinse the shells, sanitize them in a 250-degree oven for 20 minutes, and crush them. Scatter them beneath a feeder. Birds will take them year-round.  

 

Grit. Coarse sand is perfect. Put it on your platform feeder, or scatter it on the ground nearby. Lacking teeth, birds grind food in their gizzards, muscular contractions using grit as the grinding medium.

 

Berries. Not store-bought berries. Look for wild berries — sumac and grapes come to mind. If your store berries are overripe, feel free.

 

Pumpkin and melon seeds. Save them, dry them in the oven, and put them on the feeder. If you have a compost pile, you can just toss rinds there. Birds will find them.

 

Pasta. This is one I’ve never heard of. Thompson called it a compost pile revelation. (He lives in the country, by the way, with no municipal compost pickup.) So, leftover (cooked) pasta is just dumped on his pile. He recommends dry weather. He’s seen jays, thrashers, and starlings doing pasta. 

 

Last on his list, built from bottom down, are meal worms. You cannot go wrong with meal worms. Some people use them only in the spring, when insects can be in short supply. Bill writes that the worms are taken by “cardinals, chickadees, titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Chipping, Song, and Field sparrows, and Downy Woodpeckers.” Some feeder operators, he writes, have found that mealworms will attract warblers, vireos, tanagers, and orioles. Any species that forages for larvae and grubs should eat mealworms. Ask your neighborhood wild-bird store about mealworms. Put the worms in a container, like a bowl, with slippery sides so your investment does not crawl away.

 

The magazine’s interesting web site is at www.birdwatchersdigest.com

 

Photo: Meal worms are the target for this chickadee.

 

 

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