Wednesday, January 16, 2013

This Post Is For The Birds.... And They Will Love You For It

Come and get it gals!

When we first moved into our big ol' farmhouse, we started feeding the birds. Mostly we put out a buffet for the Goldfinches, which are just so darn pretty. However, we soon learned that feeding the birds at our house meant, essentially, that it enabled our cat to hunt over bait. So we pulled down the feeders in an effort to save the Goldfinch population from decimation and let go of the idea of sitting on the patio with binoculators watching the birds.

However, Smudgie, the sexy psycho serial killer cat, is "maturing" and enjoys a nice long nap in the summer kitchen or has learned to appreciate the beauty of our feathered friends and loves to watch them play, like an elder stateswoman who has come to terms with .....naaahh. She's just getting old and she hates the newest dog, whom she swore to me with a glaring look that first day Gracie came home, that she was not going to cut this mutt any slack, so she stays out of the way. Gracie, much to her folly, is the only one around here not respectful of the cat. Smudgie is the only thing she's NOT afraid of and she really should be.

Anyway, now that the cat no longer treats our feeders like bait, we have begun to hang them again the past couple of winters. We only feed in winter, mainly January through March. Birds actually don't need for us to feed them at all. But they are pretty and fun to watch so we offer a little extra boost during the hard months just to help them through. Nothing fancy or elaborate, mind you, but I do make an effort to make suet.  I have totally abandoned ever buying suet. The birds never ate it. Seriously, it just hung there like a lost toy, swinging around in it's little cage on a far branch.

I had planned a suet-making activity for my patients a few years ago as a mid-winter event and the activity group itself was great fun but lo and behold, when I put the homemade suet out, the birds went nuts. That poor pathetic store-bought suet cake just hung there- uneaten. The raccoons didn't even try to steal it.

It has "Original" written on it so that I didn't accidentally
give out  the last copy after the group activity.
We wouldn't want history to repeat itself.

So I played around with a few batches and today I would like to share my suet recipe with you for your birds. I'm going to give you the recipe first and then we'll talk.

Mammie Butterfly's Basic Suet Cake

1 lb of Crisco, beef suet, lard or any combination thereof
1 cup of peanut butter
1 cup ground cornmeal
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 to 1 cup of whole wheat flour
About 1/2 a loaf of bread- whole wheat
2 cups of birdseed, nuts, raisins

Rip the bread into little cubes- nothing fancy, just little chunks a birdie could carry if a piece ripped away from the suet cake. Set these aside.

I'm sorry this photo looks kind of disgusting.

Melt the Crisco/lard/suet and peanut butter over low heat. I start the peanut butter first and when it's almost melted I add the fat, which melts much quicker than the peanut butter. Seriously, keep the heat medium to low. Next, slowly add in the flour, cornmeal, and sugar. Mix well but keep an eye on it as I've had it bubble up rapidly during this stage- don't know why. Next comes the bread crumbs- just throw them in there and mix it up so that the liquid is all absorbed. Finally, the birdseed mix of your choice and any nuts or raisins or other yummies for the birds. I thought about adding those mealworms you see at Lowes or other places but they look like empty, hollow worm shells to me so I'm not sure if the birds would be actually getting any worm protein. I've also read that they are only as healthy as the diet they eat, which can include things like newspapers and therefore the inks on the paper. At any rate, you want your mixture to have a slushie-slurry sort of consistency, kind of like wet cement, if you've ever mixed cement.

Line a cookie sheet/jelly roll pan with aluminum foil and spread the suet out evenly. You'll have to measure your suet cage, if that's what you're using, to make sure that you don't have your layer too thick.

Anyway... once it's nice and firm, turn it out on a board and peel off the foil. Use your feeder cage as a guide to cut it to size. I put a couple of squares each in a baggie and stash them in the freezer until chow time. We've been making about 4 batches to feed January, February, and March and have to refill the little cages about every other day. Last year we had a problem with the raccoons coming up at night and stealing the suet, cage and all.

Well, someone was stealing suet.....

                                                   ... guess I shouldn't be so quick to judge.

This year I bought some of those inexpensive little luggage locks to lock the feeders to the tree. We also found some larger suet feeder cages, which means we might not need to slosh out there through the muck every day.

Now, let's talk about the ingredients a bit. I realize that some of you are vegetarians and some of you are concerned about eating healthy, whether you're a human or a bird. Let's address the fats in the recipe.

Crisco is hydrogenated vegetable oil and contains no animal products. Score for vegetarians. However, hydrogenation, as most of us know, is when hydrogen is force under high temperature and pressure into liquid oils for all sorts of reasons that have mostly to do with cost benefits to food producers and nothing in the way of health. The result is a completely unnatural fat. Just as this is not good for humans, it is most likely less than ideal for our birdies. It is the most budget friendly option for suet though maybe not the best for their little avian arteries. I suppose the argument could be made that the birds are flying and exercising so they work off the fat. I don't know. Just an aside, peanut butter can have loads of hydrogenated fats as well, so if it's important, look for natural peanut butter, certainly for yourself if not the birds.

Suet is raw beef or mutton fat found around the loins and kidneys and is packed with nutritious yummies for the birds. It is a high-energy, pure fat food for your birds that is easily digested and metabolized. You can buy it at the grocery or butcher though in some places you may need to ask the butcher to save it for you. If you have a father-in-law who butchers, even better!!! In researching for my suet recipe, some sources say to render your suet before using it for your birds to remove impurities and help it to keep longer. I don't do that, mainly because I only feed in the winter and as for the impurities- please, have you seen where some of these sweet little birds hang out? The Baltimore Bird Club has a nice informational page about suet.

Even though I personally avoid eating red meat, I prefer to use suet for bird feeding because of the nutrients. Birds eat worms and bugs and need that fat, especially in the winter. I suggest cutting it up into pieces, and melting it slowly. If you can melt it outside on the grill, even better because it really does hang in the air. And like I say, I don't render it, which involves straining and remelting. Once it gets mostly melted, I'm good with that, chunky bits and all.

The last option is lard, which is pig fat. Same general considerations as with beef suet but it is interesting to note that lard is actually a good source of Vitamin D. Huh, who knew? But so are eggs, oily fish, liver, cheese, and 20 minutes a day of unfiltered sunlight (no sunscreen- oh the scandal).

Bacon? Well, I'm sorry but bacon drippings really are not a good choice, even though birds do seem to love it. Love it like a McDonald's fry. Bacon has all sorts of bad ju-ju in it; detectable amounts of carcinogenic compounds formed from some of the preservatives used in bacon. Even we humans should not eat it. I know, that makes me a real buzz-kill.

Bluebird Nut has a nice page that discusses all of the issues with the various fat options in more detail.

My take on this is to use the least expensive ingredients that you can find. Use whatever your budget, common sense, and convictions tell you to use. Then sit back with your binoculators and watch the feeding party.

Thanks for visiting-- I'll see ya next time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! We painted birdhouses for my son's birthday, I think something like this would be perfect to hang near them (once the weather cooperates enough to try it).

    Love your site, I've been all over the Norwegian recipes! Are you comfortable with me posting some of them on Pinterest?