First, an interesting note from afield. A Calliope hummingbird was found on Nantucket last weekend. Our smallest hummingbird from the southwestern United States, this is only about the fifth record of this bird for Massachusetts. As I have mentioned before, if you still have hummingbird feeders up, or flowers that have not succumbed to the cold, and you see a hummingbird out this time of year, check it carefully.
This is the time of year when we are visited by vagrant hummingbirds from the western states that, for whatever reason, migrate east instead of south. Take a picture if you can as hummingbird identification can be tricky. Keep a close eye out for other unusual birds in your yard as well.
As the weather changes, I thought I would again share some thoughts about having suet available for birds. As the weather gets colder, some birds become more active around the bird feeders. Not only do they go for the bird seed, but the suet begins disappearing faster as well. Have you ever wondered why this is?
Birds have a high metabolic rate and must eat constantly during the day to have enough reserves to carry them through the colder nights. The colder the nights, the more reserves they need. They must also be able to convert that food quickly to heat and energy to survive. Foods with higher oil and fat content become most important.
Black oil sunflower, peanuts, safflower, corn and suet are some of the highest oil content foods that you can serve birds during the colder months. Suet, by far, provides more energy per bite than all the others. Suet is fat from cattle and sheep. Of course there is nothing like suet in the natural world for birds, so why are birds attracted to it? It is speculated that suet is an excellent substitute for insects, which are a rich source of fat and protein for birds during warmer months. Birds probably use suet to supplement insects during the warmer months and as a substitute during colder months when insects are not available.
Suet can be purchased from a local butcher or market. When I was young, our butcher use to give it to me free because he had to pay to have it hauled away. Now that it has become a more popular bird feeding commodity, they charge us for this “waste.” Raw suet, however, can melt in warmer weather, turn rancid rather quickly, or it can freeze during colder weather. So most suet that is put in bird feeders in rendered.
You can render raw suet yourself by chopping it up and melting it down. By heating and straining out the solid fats, you can refrigerate the liquid to provide a harden suet for the birds. I use to render my suet and mix in cornmeal, peanut butter and seed, but my parents complained when I “stunk up” the kitchen with my concoction.
An easier alternative is to purchase low cost suet that is already rendered and cut into convenient sizes that fit most suet feeders. Commercial suet is mixed with all kinds of yummy treats for the birds including peanuts, seeds, insects, and fruit. Suet that contain nuts and seed are more attractive to seed eaters, whereas, the orange and berry flavored suet is more attractive to fruit eaters.
Suet is attractive to all of the woodpeckers, including flickers and even the large, pileated woodpeckers. Suet is also popular with nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. Carolina wrens and brown creepers will also visit suet feeders.
Orioles, catbirds, mockingbirds and tanagers enjoy the fruit flavored suet. Suet feeders come in all sizes and shapes. There are simple cages, but the woodpeckers prefer longer cages or those that have an extension on the bottom called a “tail prop.” Woodpeckers use their stiff tail to brace themselves as they cling to trees. Placing a suet feeder on a tree trunk, or providing a suet feeder with an extension for their tail helps them to brace themselves while eating. There is even a very large version of a tail-prop suet feeder for the pileated woodpecker.
There are also log suet feeders that are, basically, wood logs with holes drilled in them. Suet “plugs” are put in the holes and woodpeckers and other clinging birds will use the log, without perches that might attract starlings or squirrels.
Other effective suet feeder designs include an “upside-down” feeder which exposes the suet only underneath the feeder. The clinging birds don’t mind hanging upside down to feed. This design helps discourage starlings, grackles and squirrels. Another feeder style that has a cage around it further discourages squirrels and larger birds. If squirrels become a real problem, you can try offering “pure” suet, rendered beef suet without all the “fixin’s,” like the seeds and nuts that the squirrels are really after.
Providing suet for birds helps them survive, while providing us with great entertainment, and it gives new meaning to the term “watching your fat!”
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.