The word “suet” comes from the Latin sebum, the oily substance that lubricates our skin, and less appealingly, clogs our pores and produces pimples and blackheads. Suet is actually the fat found around the loins and kidneys of beef or sheep. It is used to make tallow to produce candles and soap. It’s also used in British cuisine in pastry, pudding, dumplings, and mincemeat. Yum. But birds like it.
In the northern hemisphere it is time to feed backyard birds because the temperature is getting colder and the birds need more food to maintain their energy stores and because food is harder to find, especially in bad weather. We offer birds various kinds of food but the highest in energy are the kinds with the most fat. Fat offers twice as much energy than carbohydrates and protein. In cold weather and energy–intensive migratory journeys, fat is critical.
The average non-migrating bird carries only 3-5% of its body weight as fat. As migration approaches, whether the journey is north- or southward, birds put on a layer of fat, up to 50-60% of their body weigh if they migrate long distances. The Bar-Tailed
Godwit gets its body up to 55% fat!. Their fat stores enough energy to allow them to fly over 6000 miles non-stop across the Pacific. The Eskimo Curlew, probably extinct since the 1960s, was once one of the most abundant shorebirds in the world. Before migrating from the Arctic tundra to South America, it put on enormous amounts of fat. As the birds passed over North America, and estimated two million birds a year were shot. Their load of fat prompted the hunters to call them “doughbirds” because of the consistency of the fat under their skin. Not all birds load up with fat like that but they all need fat in one form or another to survive.
But it’s not just migration that demands fat. Birds that remain in cold climes need fat as well to fend to keep themselves warm on cold days and long, cold nights. So, you might want to try feeding suet to your birds. Woodpeckers are especially fond of suet, but chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, thrushes, jays, mockingbirds, orioles, and cardinals will also partake of suet. But you generally won’t find sparrows or finches engaging in a suet diet.
There are various ways to present suet. The source should be at least five feet above the ground and close to a tree trunk. There are suet feeders (like a little flat cage), or you can press the suet onto a pine cone or inside a mesh bag. Or put it on a platform. Or you can just rub it into the bark of the tree. Just be sure the weather outside is 50 degrees or below as suet will rapidly go rancid in warm weather.
There are lots of kinds of suet. You can make the suet yourself or buy it commercially. One easy recipe is to mix together peanut butter, lard, quick oatmeal, cornmeal, white flour, and sugar. Melt the peanut butter and lard and then add the other ingredients, spread in a pan and freeze. Cut into squares and serve. I’ve taught young children to make bird feeders out of a bagel covered with peanut butter and bird seed; hang it from a tree branch. Easy to do and non toxic. Here’s a vegetarian recipe from Audubon.