Feed the Birds: My Grandmother’s Homemade Suet Cake Recipe

Suet is an excellent source of energy for birds. You can provide plain suet, or mix it with nuts, raisins, and other fruit. You can buy the mixture, or make your own. One of the benefits of making your own suet cake is saving money as well as knowing what’s in it. Suet can be provided in a variety of feeders: smeared on a branch or log or even on a pine cone, in a suet cage, in a tray, or in a mesh bag (like in the kind onions come in).

Here is my grandmother’s recipe which is a hit with Chickadees, Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, and even Redpolls, as you can see from the photos below. My grandmother reminded me that birds enjoy this in the summer, and one of the benefits of this recipe, since it’s not straight suet, is that it’s not very drippy when the temperature gets warmer.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb lard and some bacon grease (or the fat of your choice) [edited/updated to add: if you are vegetarian or vegan, you could try substituting your favourite type of solid vegetable shortening, like Crisco — you might have to add more cornmeal and flour ]
  • 2 cups peanut butter
  • 6 cups cornmeal
  • 5 cups flour
  • any dried fruit or nuts you’d like to add

Directions:

Melt the lard/fat with the peanut butter, then add cornmeal, flour, and any dried fruit and/or nuts to the mixture and stir well. Let it cool and harden in any container, and then it’s ready to put on a tray feeder, in a suet cage, or in a tin can. If you make the whole recipe and have too much, it freezes very well.

If you have a favorite recipe, please share it in the comments!

White-breasted Nuthatch in my grandparents’ yard,

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Downy Woodpecker,

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Red-breasted Nuthatch,

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Feathers on Friday

If you would like to join me for my Feathers on Friday meme, please put the link to your blog post in the comments and I’ll add the link to my post.

This Downy Woodpecker visited my feeders earlier this week,

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More Feathers on Friday Posts:

:: From Josiah at Birds in Your Backyard: Feathers on Friday

Woodpeckers Come in Threes

On Saturday, I went out for a walk around the slough across the road from our house. The weather was fairly cold -15 C (5F), but luckily there was no wind so it was quite a pleasant walk. Even thought it’s still the beginning of November, winter has set in on the Canadian prairies; the sloughs are covered with ice, snow has blanketed the ground, and most animals have migrated to warmer places or are hibernating. On my two and a half hour walk, I saw only seven bird species: Downy Woodpecker, Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped Chickadee, Common Raven, Pileated Woodpecker, and Hairy Woodpecker.

This is the first walk  I’ve taken where I saw all three species of woodpeckers occuring in our area. I was able to get fairly good photos of the Downy and Hairy, but not the Pileated! It flew away before I could take a photograph. The Pileated Woodpecker could be considered a nemesis bird for me because I’ve never been able to get a photo of one. Hopefully on my next walk I’ll see another one and finally get a photo.

Some photos from my walk:

A view of the slough and woods,

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This Downy Woodpecker was tapping away on some cattails,

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I found this Meadow Vole hiding in the snow,

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A young Whitetail buck jumping over the silt fencing that was put up to keep amphibians away from the pipeline activity in the summer,

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Snow covered woods,

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A male Hairy Woodpecker flew into the same bunch of trees just as the Pileated flew off,

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A Month at the Long Point Bird Observatory: Part 1

I’ve been home now for about two weeks after spending a wonderful bird-filled month at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario. I had such a great time at Long Point (it’s hard not to!) with the other volunteers, banders in charge, and all of the birding and banding. And I learned so much about banding, molt, neat tricks for aging and sexing certain species, and also how much hard work goes toward keeping all three banding stations going.

I miss everyone at LPBO very much lot and am envious of all the amazing birds that have been banded and seen since my departure. Some of my favorite species I banded were a Semipalmated Plover, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, an Orange-crowned Warbler, countless Swainson’s Thrushes, a Black-billed Cuckoo, an American Goldfinch, Black-throated Blue, and Black-throated Green Warblers, Eastern Wood Pewees, and a Connecticut Warbler, just to name a few.

Because I was at Long Point for such a long time and we did so much, I haven’t included all of my daily journal entries, just some of the highlights (and this is just Part 1): I arrived at the Long Point Bird Observatory from Toronto on August 14th, in the morning. At Old Cut I met Dayna and Janice, LPBO staff who are both banders in charge, and volunteers Darren from New Zealand and Antje from Germany.

In the late afternoon, I walked the census route to re-familiarize myself with the area, and in the evening some of us went to the dike behind Old Cut to count the thousands of Bank Swallows flying overhead. Antje with retrap male Downy Woodpecker at Old Cut, IMG_1303 An Adult Yellow Warbler, IMG_1310 August 16th: I’d been at Old Cut for only one day, and today Darren, Antje, Antoine, Christophe, and I boated out to the Tip. It was a great day for boating — the lake was calm and the sun was shining. When we got to the Tip, we unloaded the supplies and groceries, had a quick lunch, and set up the nets in the garden.

As we were setting up one of the nets, we heard a Virginia Rail calling from the marsh — a lifer for me. We went for a walk on the census route, but passerine activity was fairly slow, though there were lots of birds at the very Tip including 3,000 Common Terns, 73 Herring Gulls, three Least Sandpipers, eight Semipalmated Sandpipers, and one Semipalmated Plover.

The Tip’s Heligoland (funnel) trap was in need of some repair to the mesh, so the birds wouldn’t escape through the holes as they flew into the trap. When we opened the door, we found this Little Brown Bat sleeping. It didn’t move as we continued work on the HT, IMG_1356 August 19th: On my way to check the mist nets this morning, I saw a Blackburnian Warbler in a poplar along with an American Redstart. On my Monarch census for my research project, I found a Black-and-White Warbler and a Brown Thrasher. While swimming in the lake, an immature Ruddy Turnstone flew past with a flock of Least Sandpipers.

After supper, Darren came inside to tell us that there was an American Woodcock near one of the nets so we all went out to look at it. An Ovenbird, IMG_1510 August 20th: It was very windy this morning, and because of that we had to close some of the nets early, but we caught a Black-billed Cuckoo in the Heligoland trap. We all drew net pegs to see who would band the bird and I was very excited when my peg was chosen.

In the evening we put up some mist nets on the beach to catch shorebirds and caught two Least Sandpipers. They’re so small — weighing about 20 grams. An adult female Black-billed Cuckoo, IMG_1410

If you look closely on the primaries and primary coverts, you can see a slight tinge of blue on this female Indigo Bunting,

IMG_1424 Unfortunately, this year the Monarch Butterfly population decreased dramatically so there weren’t as many Monarchs at the Tip as in previous years. During my stay at the Tip, I saw four pairs of Monarchs mating, IMG_5965 A Bay-breasted Warbler, IMG_1590 August 21st: When I was out at the Tip with Euan, a volunteer from Scotland, seven Willets landed on the beach, and as we were just about to leave, three American Avocets flew in.

It was very neat to see both Willets and Avocets because they are fairly unusual species around Long Point. I added a new lifer to my list — a Great Black-backed Gull standing at the Tip with the Ring-billed Gulls. Birds waiting to be banded on one of our fairly busy days, IMG_1359 A Great-crested Flycatcher, IMG_1377 August 26th: We opened only one net this morning because of the strong winds but we did seven HT runs. We almost caught a Sora but it escaped through a hole in the mesh.

In our last HT run we caught a Yellow-billed Cuckoo! There was an immature Black-crowned Night Heron flying around, which then landed in some poplars. I saw 16 Monarchs on census, as well as two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chasing a Red-winged Blackbird. A Brown Thrasher, IMG_1406 Darren found this huge Bullfrog one night near the lighthouse and brought it back to show the rest of us, IMG_1455 We caught this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the HT, but you need to have a special license to band gnatcatchers because their legs are so small; in fact, the smallest band LPBO has will fit right over a gnatcatcher leg. So if Blue-gray Gnatcatchers get caught at LPBO, they are released, IMG_1471 August 28th: It was raining in the morning so we didn’t open the nets until 9:30. We all went on census and saw 42 species, with a flock of Cape May Warblers, a Canada Warbler, a Blackburnian, Tennessee, and Magnolias in some bushes. In the nets we caught a Western Wood Pewee which is a very rare species for Long Point.

We took lots of photos and took a few feather samples. In the evening we did a supplementary census. It was really amazing to watch the thousands of gulls “hawking” for insects over the marsh. There were seven Common Nighthawks too. A Western Wood Pewee, IMG_1571 Stay tuned for part two! I hope to get it up as soon possible.

Birds in Winter

Unlike last year, it has been snowing almost every day since the middle of October and there will definitely be a white Christmas this year, barring any sudden heat wave. Last year’s Christmas was brown, which was disappointing and not very Christmassy .

I haven’t been birding as much as I’d like (in part because it’s safer not to go out in November during hunting season), but I’m enjoying the birds at my feeders. A few weeks ago a male Downy Woodpecker started coming to the feeders, a flock of about 10 Black-capped Chickadees visit regularly everyday, and one House Sparrow comes too. I’m still waiting for the redpolls, but they usually come in January.

Our local Christmas Bird Count is on Saturday and I hope to see some good species just as my team did last year. If you haven’t signed up for a Christmas Bird Count in your area yet, you should! It’s lots of fun, and you are contributing to science.

Downy Woodpecker in my grandparents’ yard,

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Red-breasted Nuthatch at my grandparents’,

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A Common Redpoll at my grandparents’ yard,

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This last picture is probably one of the worst photos I’ve ever taken. I don’t have very good luck when it comes to seeing and photographing owls, so I thought I would post it anyway.

A Short-eared Owl,

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Feeding Birds in the Winter

Winter is a hard time for birds, especially in north central Alberta. Grasses are covered in snow so the seeds are hard to get; the berry supply starts to dwindle and also gets snow-covered; and insects are either hidden underground, indoors in houses, or burrowed deeply into tree trunks.

Before people started feeding birds through the winter, birds survived without man-made bird feeders, but putting up feeders does give birds more of a chance in winter and it’s fun to see which species will visit your feeders.

A Common Redpoll at a nyjer feeder,

If you feed birds, you must clean your feeders regularly and thoroughly to prevent the spread of disease. Clean and disinfect feeders often, one or two times a month should be sufficient. Use nine parts warm water to one part household bleach to thoroughly disinfect your feeders.

Here are some of my suggestions if you are new to feeding birds, or you would like to try something different and fun!

I’ve given some links, for informational purposes only. I particularly like Droll Yankees feeders, which I know well because I’ve won eight of them from Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds radio show (the Mystery Bird segment). Their feeders are good quality, withstand Alberta’s extreme elements very well, and are made in the United States. But I’m not sponsored by or an affiliate of either Droll Yankees or Amazon or any other store.

Seeds:

If you want to offer only one type of seeds to birds, black-oil sunflower seeds are the way to go! Black-oil sunflower seeds are fairly inexpensive, especially when bought in bulk. Black-oil sunflower seeds are easier for birds to open than the striped sunflower seeds, and the kernel is larger too. Sunflower seeds can be put in a hopper-, tray-, or tube-feeders, or on the ground. You can also buy the sunflowers seeds hulled, it’s a little more expensive, but it reduces the waste on the ground and it’s also a big treat for the birds.

Nyjer (thistle) seed is a favorite among finches, although it can be expensive. It is a small black seed, and is best put in a nyjer feeder or a nyjer sock. You don’t have to worry about Nyjer seed sprouting because it is heat-treated, but it can go rancid or moldy quickly in wet weather, so it’s more economical to buy in small bags and keep it dry.

Some seed mixes are better than others. Talk to other birders in your area to see what they have to recommend. Cheap mixes are usually not the best quality, with lots of filler that birds don’t like, such as red millet and milo. The better mixes have sunflower seeds, peanuts, white millet, and cracked corn. There are also some specialty online stores where you can custom-make your mixed-seed blend.

Birds need a lot of energy and protein to get through an Alberta winter, and peanuts are a great source. Jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees will readily visit a feeder for peanuts. If you provide peanuts, make sure they are unsalted and not honey-roasted either!

Suet is a great source of energy for birds. You can provide plain suet, or you can mix it with nuts, raisins, and other fruit. You can buy the mixtures, or make your own. Suet can be provided in a variety of feeders: smeared on a branch or log, in a suet cage, in a tray, or in a mesh onion bag.

Here’s a good page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the different kinds of feeders with some photographs.

Water:

In the winter birds eat snow to keep their bodies hydrated. It does bring down the bird’s body temperature, but they can survive. They also will bathe in the snow to keep their feathers clean.

Heated bird baths are wonderful for cold climates. The heater doesn’t actually heat the water, it just keeps the water from freezing. I don’t have a heater so I just take warm water and thaw the ice in the bird bath every morning.

Never put any anti-freezing chemicals in the water or use any harsh chemicals, such as bleach, to clean the bird bath either. Sun is a natural disinfectant and it is good for bird bath.

A Black-capped Chickadee,

When feeding birds, be prepared for some surprises at your feeding station. Some people see Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins hanging around the yard hoping to catch some of the feeder birds.

Last March this Northern Shrike visited my feeders hoping to make a meal of one of the Common Redpolls,

If you are in or around the Edmonton area, the Wild Bird General Store has a remarkable assortment of bird seed (from small brown bags to big barrels in bulk), bird feeders, bird baths, and anything you can think of relating to birds. Many hardware stores have a good selection of bird feeding items as well.

A Merlin on our TV antenna keeping a close eye on the goldfinches,

A Downy Woodpecker enjoying my grandmother’s homemade suet,