Fat Chance for Backyard Birds

Chestnut-backed Chickadee on Suet Feeder

Low fat diets may be good for people, but not for birds! Birds metabolize fat more efficiently than seed, so it helps birds maintain their high body temperatures. In the wild, birds scavenge animal fat from carcasses.

Suet is a fancy name for fat!  It’s the term used for the energy-rich kidney fat from cattle.  Suet cakes can be made of that fat, or from lesser fats like tallow or even soybean oil (vegetarian).  An earlier generation of backyard bird watchers could purchase suet from butcher shops and set it out for birds.  Today it can be difficult to find, and tough to deal with since raw suet spoils easily.  It’s easiest to buy commercially-prepared suet cakes with rendered suet – the impurities have been boiled away to prevent spoilage.

Many Birds Eat Suet:

Insect-eaters: Bushtits, Downy Woodpeckers, kinglets, warblers, kinglets and wrens
Seed-eaters: Chickadees, nuthatches, Northern Flickers

When you shop for suet: Check the ingredients!  For the highest quality, highest energy content fat, look for kidney beef suet.  Less costly alternatives include tallow and shortening.  Additional ingredients may make the suet more attractive:  nuts and peanuts appeal to Northern Flickers, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, and chickadees.  Berries and sunflower seeds appeal to almost all birds.  Insects are a very attractive protein source, especially in the winter when fewer insects are available to backyard birds.  Watch out for too many filler seeds with too little suet, though:  it’s the way manufacturers reduce the cost of a suet cake, but a seed-filled suet cake will not provide as much fat, may not be as attractive to suet-eating birds, and may not last as long since it’s more likely to rinse away more quickly in the rain.

Suet Feeding FAQs

Q: What kind of feeder do I use?
A: A suet cage, vinyl suet bag or even mesh produce bag will suffice.  You can even smear it on a pine cone, or press it into tree bark.  A good bet is a feeder designed to prevent unwanted visitors like starlings or squirrels.

Q: Where do I place a suet feeder?

A:  You have a wide choice!  We offer feeders that can hang from the branch of a tree or a wrought iron hook.  Others are designed to lean against a tree trunk or post, making it easy for Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers to use their tails for balance.  We also offer suet feeders especially designed with woodpeckers in mind —  hanging suet feeders with  “tail boards” built in.

Q:  What do I do if starlings take over my suet?

A:  Try a starling-resistant feeder.  Those require birds to hang upside down to feed – easy for most songbirds to do, but difficult for starlings.  Come see our selection of starling-resistant suet feeders,  in a variety of materials from metal to recycled plastic to Western Red Cedar with wire mesh.

Q:  Can I feed birds but not squirrels?

A: First, choose a suet with no nuts or seeds.  We offer a number of suet choices that fill that bill!  Or, choose a suet that contains a hot pepper taste that squirrels dislike.  Again, we have a number of suet choices that fill that bill!  Finally, consider a squirrel-proof suet feeder that allows birds to feed but excludes furry visitors.

Make Your Own Suet
2 lbs. lard
6 cups cornmeal
3 cups wheat flour
4 cups oatmeal
2 cups peanut hearts or sunflower chips

Soften the lard.  Stir in other ingredients a little at a time until mixture is quite thick.  Freeze in tuna cans or plastic tubs about 4” x 4” or smaller.  Suet cakes can be hung frozen (they’re less messy to handle this way), and they fit nicely in wire suet cages.

… Originally published by Audubon Society


Suet, a Food for Four Seasons:

Winter brings cold days that increase birds’ energy needs.  Finding enough food to maintain their high body temperatures requires extra effort.  Insects are scarce, so suet is an excellent substitute.

Spring is nesting season for Northwest songbirds.  Some bird parents know how to make the most of a suet feeder!  Watch chickadee and other bird parents make trips between the suet feeder and their birdhouse, feeding their offspring a quick meal.

Summer fledglings, still learning to find food, entertain with their antics.  Watch for full-sized birds tagging along with adults, flapping their wings and squawking for mommy to feed them!

Autumn brings shorter days and fewer insects.  Feeder action increases as insects become scarce.

Photo of Chestnut-backed Chickadee on Suet, taken in Portland