Originally Published: November 6, 2004 7 a.m.
A frequently asked question here at Jay's Bird Barn is: "now that the weather has changed, should I change what I am feeding the birds?"
One recommendation I have is to put suet out right now. Suet is geared primarily for insect-eating birds. By providing suet in the winter months, you can potentially attract a wider variety of birds than you can with just feeding seed alone.
Suet is made with the fatwhich is found around the kidneys in cattle. Years ago it was easy to obtain suet by just asking for it at the meat counter in your neighborhood market. The butcher would go dig through the bone barrel and retrieve strips of fat which had been trimmed from cuts of meat. Nowadays it is difficult to get suet from the butcher as most of the heavy trimming is done prior to shipping.
Suet in modern day terms usually refers to commercially made cakes of rendered beef fat containing a variety of different ingredients. For example, some suet cakes contain peanut butter, and others contain sunflower hearts, or raisins and nuts. Less expensive varieties usually have "filler" ingredients such as millet and cracked corn, whereas better quality suet has peanut butter and sunflower hearts. The old adage "you get what you pay for" is an apt description of suet. Not all suet cakes are of equal quality, just as not all seed blends are the same.
Are you a label reader when you go grocery shopping? It's not a bad idea to read the labels when you are shopping for your feathered friends too. What should you look for in suet? The higher the percentage value for protein, the better it is. For example, High energy suet has 6 percent protein, but peanut butter suet has 12 percent protein!
Some of the more common bird species in the Prescott area, which readily eat suet, are bushtits, Bewick's wrens, ruby-crowned kinglets, woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches, chickadees, and jays. (But then again, is there anything that the jays won't eat?) I have also seen both yellow-rumped warblers and yellow-breasted chats feeding on my suet!
A variety of bird species will eat suet on an as-needed basis such as when our area experiences severe weather conditions and natural food sources are hard to come by. For example, I have seen American robins eating suet. Since they cannot cling to the suet feeder, they peck at the suet cake to dislodge pieces of suet while hovering momentarily. The robin will then fly down and pick up the pieces of suet off the ground.
Will suet work in all habitats? Not necessarily. Suet is best fed in areas where there is a good mixture of oak/chaparral habitat and also in more heavily forested areas. In winter months, insect-eating birds tend to inhabit forested areas. Areas that are fairly open consisting mostly of grass and rangeland habitat will generally get very little activity on suet feeders in the winter months.
How does a suet feeder differ from a seed feeder? Typically, suet feeders are small wire cages or baskets. Most birds that eat suet have the ability to cling to the feeder and extract the food through the wire mesh. Some fancier feeders have a surface area called a "tail prop" so insect eaters such as flickers and woodpeckers have the ability to brace themselves with their tail while they are eating the suet.
A quick update on last Saturday's bird walk here at Jay's Bird Barn. We saw 19 species during our one-hour walk, the best sighting being a hermit thrush. We also saw a beautiful male red-napped sapsucker which was a new species for two of the participants. Some of the other species we saw included western bluebirds, Bewick's wren, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers and both canyon and spotted towhees.
If you have specific questions, or issues related to wild birds which you would like discussed in future articles, you can submit them to Jay's Bird Barn, P.O. Box 11471, Prescott, AZ 86304, or log onto www.JaysBirdBarn.com and click on 'Ask Eric' which will link you with my e-mail address: Eric@JaysBirdBarn.com. Until next week, happy birding!
Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn located at Watters Garden Center and has been an avid birder for close to 40 years.