Cooking (is) for the Birds

I like to keep a variety of suet cakes and seed cakes around for the birds because (in theory) these compressed food sources last longer than the loose seed in my hopper and tray feeders.  However, these products have a few major drawbacks for me:

  1. They are expensive!  The large seed cakes are regularly above $5 each and the smaller suet cakes are typically between $0.75 and $1.00 apiece.  This adds up quickly when I have several large and several small cage feeders to fill.
  2. It’s nearly impossible to find high-fat suet cakes in most of my stores around here, they mostly stock the no-melt dough suet.  That’s great in the summer, but in the winter I want to offer something with a higher fat content.
  3. They don’t last longer once the squirrels get in on the action.  I’ve had my pack of ravenous furballs eat an entire large sunflower cake in less than 2 days!

So this month I decided to try an experiment.  I made my own seed and suet cakes.  Making them myself let me use lard (which is a high fat content) and hot pepper powder (which is supposed to keep some squirrels away…we’ll see).  Plus it let me match up my crafty side with my bird feeding side.  So, in case you want to try your hand (and stove) at it, here’s the recipes and general process I used.

Seed Cakes

  • 1 cups mixed (high quality) bird seed
  • 1.2 to 1 cup dried fruit (raisins, unsweetened cranberries, etc.)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 packet Knox unflavored gelatin
  • hot pepper powder (no measurement, just enough to make it spicy)

Prepare your molds before making the seed mixture.  These seed blocks are not really made to be cut after set, so make sure you know the size you want before you start.  Many people use cookie cutters placed on a wax-paper liked cookie sheet.  I actually cut rings from an empty 2-liter soda bottle, these were the perfect size for my small suet cages.

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Heat the water and gelatin powder in a saucepan to warm (no need to boil).  Remove from the heat and add gelatin mixture to the birdseed and fruit.  Stir well, making sure to disperse the pepper powder.  Smoosh mix into your chosen molds (some of the gelatin goo with leak out the bottom of the molds, that’s fine) and place in the refrigerator for several hours to set.

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Remove from the molds, wrap the cakes in plastic and store in a plastic bag in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to use them.

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Suet Cakes

  • 32 oz of lard
  • 1 cup mixed (high quality) bird seed
  • 1 cup peanuts (lightly chopped in the blender)
  • 1 cup dried fruit (raisins, unsweetened cranberries, etc.)
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup oatmeal
  • 1 cup chunky peanut butter
  • hot pepper powder (no measurement, just enough to make it spicy)

Chop the lard into smaller pieces (or run it though a grinder) to make it easier to melt.  I used my trusty enameled (cast iron) Dutch Oven to melt the fat as it heats nice and even.

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After the lard is melted, carefully add the peanut butter to the hat fat and stir to mix well.  Stir in all of the dry ingredients and allow the mixture to start to cool and solidify.  Make sure that you stir it periodically to keep all the solids from settling to the bottom.

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Pour into your chosen pans and place in the freezer to become solid.

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After the suet is set, use your suet cages as a size guide and cut into the appropriate size slabs.  Be careful if you are doing thinner/smaller blocks for small suet cages, you may want to reduce the solid ingredients a bit.  I used the same recipe for my thicker/bigger blocks and my small ones, and when I went to cut the thinner blocks they crumbled quite a bit.

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Wrap the completed blocks in plastic and place them in the freezer for storage.

These blocks have only been hanging up for a few days at this point, and although I did see one brave squirrel taking a nibble there hasn’t been the massive mammal run I usually see.  But i have seen several woodpeckers and chickadees munching, so I think the birds (at least) approve.


Black Friday Feeder Stock-up

So, every year I say I am NOT going to go shopping on Black Friday.  It combines many of the situations I really dislike (crowds, shopping, spending money, cranky people, etc.) and puts them all in one compact package.  But this year I ventured out (after 8 am, so most of the really deal-crazed people were already done with their shopping) because the local Blain’s Farm and Fleet and Menards stores were having deals on bird-feeding supplies and I needed to stock up.  You wouldn’t think it when you start this hobby, but feeding birds (when you also end up feeding all the neighborhood squirrels by default) adds up.  So when they are advertising buy-one-get-one (BOGO) on black-oil sunflower seeds, sometimes you have to go outside your comfort zone…

I didn’t get very adventurous on the bird seed purchases, just stocked up on the staples of high-quality mixed seed, black-oil sunflower seeds, shelled and in-shell peanuts, and some suet blocks.  My biggest splurge was a new ‘squirrel-proof’ hopper-style feeder to replace my aging and squirrel chewed current feeder.  Between the smaller size of my old feeder and the amount of times I saw squirrels hanging off it, I was filling it every morning and having it be bone-dry by afternoon.  This new feeder can hold around 11 pounds of seed if I need it to, and thus far I’ve been spending far less time filling it than I was the other.  Plus, it’s metal.  I’m almost hoping to see a squirrel try to chew on it at this point…

So now my seed storage is stocked for the next month or two, I’ve got a shiny new feeder and my heated bird bath from an earlier purchase, dare I say I’m ready for the snow to fly?  I’ll admit, after seeing how many visitors I got at my feeders during that first snowfall a few weeks ago, I’m actually (almost, sort of…not really) looking forward to winter for the first time in a long while.  And if we’re snowed in, at least I know the birds will eat well.