Suet isn’t just for winter anymore. In the spring and summer, it is a great way to provide brooding birds and their nestlings with a generous amount of calories in an easy-to-eat form. Suet with insects or fruit added appeal to a wide range of birds and may provide a source of insects when they are scarce.
Birds that enjoy suet include bluebirds, woodpeckers, chickadees, wrens, cardinals and warblers. Suet is ideal for summer because adults need more calories to forage for food for their young or defend the nest from intruders. It is also beneficial for young birds because it provides easy energy, which leads to quick growth. The fat in suet provides twice the caloric energy of protein. This fat energy helps the birds sustain activity levels between meals.
Originally, suet came from the fat surrounding the organs of butchered animals. It was traditionally hung out in the winter to help the birds through the cold weather. This practice was fine as long as the cold preserved the fat. As the temperature warms, suet can spoil or become rancid and harbor bacterial and fungal growth that may be harmful to birds. In addition, melting suet can coat feathers and interfere with their natural waterproofing and insulating functions. The smell of melting suet may attract predators and cause damage to hard surfaces and plants. Finally, it makes a terrible, wasteful, mess.
Fortunately, today’s suet cakes and plugs are rendered, or melted repeatedly, to remove impurities and raise the melting point. Today’s processed suet products typically won’t melt until temperatures are consistently above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. No melt formula suet is mixed with grain, cornmeal or seeds to bind the cake together. These may also be called suet dough.
Other precautions can be taken to safely provide suet for warm weather birds. First of all, place the feeder in a cool, shady area. It is preferable to receive that shade later in the day when temperatures are higher. Add a baffle or cover to provide shade. Secondly, portion suet cakes or plugs out in halves or thirds so that you only put out what the birds will eat in a day. Another trick is to freeze the suet. A hard cake will not put off birds because the edges will soften first while the center stays frozen. Finally, use a tray to catch drips for easier clean up and to preserve hard surfaces and plants under the feeder.
Although feeding suet used to only be a wintertime activity, modern processing and innovations have allowed us to continue providing energy packed treats for our birds year round. By implementing a few guidelines, you may soon see parents bringing their young to the suet feeder to show them where to find “the good stuff”!
By Bloomington Assistant Manager TRISH WAGLE
Reprinted from Volume 21 Issue 4 | July/August 2014 Bird’s-Eye View