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9:57 AM Sat, Nov. 17th

The benefits of feeding suet in winter

The snow we had this past weekend combined with the prolonged cold spell we have been experiencing has resulted in a few surprises in bird behavior. I witnessed both a ruby-crowned kinglet and a Bewicks wren feeding at a black-oil sunflower feeder in my yard.

This is a behavior I have never observed before. Generally speaking, kinglets and wrens are considered insect eaters. Apparently the snow covered their natural food sources, so they had to resort to picking around in the seed feeder looking for fragments of sunflower seeds that house finches had shelled.

It shouldn't be surprising to see kinglets and wrens pecking around in a sunflower feeder, as they readily eat this ingredient in suet cakes. In addition to the main ingredient of rendered beef fat, suet cakes can contain some of the following ingredients: sunflower hearts, chopped peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, cashews, cracked corn, millet, blueberries, cherries, dried apples, and even dried mealworms and crickets.

Suet consumption has been amazing this winter. On Sunday, I witnessed bushtits, yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets and Bewicks wrens all frequenting our three suet feeders. Depending on where you live and what your habitat is like, you can also attract nuthatches, titmice, chickadees and a variety of woodpecker species with a suet feeder.

However, like seed blends, not all suet cakes are the same. If you've ever purchased a seed blend for wild birds in a Big Box store, chances are the blend contained a lot of what I term filler ingredients. It pays to read the ingredients on the suet cake label and think about what kinds of birds you are trying to attract. Many bird species are picky and prefer some suet flavors to others.

Some suet manu-facturers put a lot of filler ingredients in their products to make them less expensive, but then the cake does not appeal to insect-eating types of birds. Filler ingredients such as millet and cracked corn ­ which appeals to ground feeding birds such as Gambel's quail and mourning doves ­ are not available in quality suet cakes.

Birds that eat at suet feeders are not ground feeders. Wrens, bushtits, kinglets, woodpeckers, titmice and warblers

eat suet, as they have the ability to cling to the wire cage that holds the suet cake.

Many folks have commented that they had suet cakes out this past winter, and nothing came to them. I admit we didn't have a lot of success with suet last year. I think it was due to the fact that last winter was milder, whereas this winter has been much colder. It seems that when food sources are abundant, suet is a fallback food source, and will go unused unless the weather becomes harsh and natural food sources become scarce.

Also, suet is not right for all habitats. Suet works best in areas where insect-eating types of birds exist. These areas usually have a lot of trees and scrubby growth. If you live in an open area or in a grassland setting such as Pronghorn Ranch in Prescott Valley, I wouldn't recommend feeding suet, as you would probably get very few takers.

Over the past few weeks several customers have brought in a great selection of photographs demonstrating the variety of species that visit suet feeders. I invite you to stop by sometime and take a look at these photographs.

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, 1046 Willow Creek Road, Suite 105, Prescott, AZ 86301 or log onto www.JaysBirdBarn.com and click on "Ask Eric," which will link you with my e-mail address, Eric@JaysBirdBarn.com.

Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn, a backyard wild bird store located in the Safeway/Kmart shopping center on Willow Creek Road. He has been an avid birder for over 40 years.