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.

Birdless December

So, I think it’s safe to say that I have been spoiled.  Over the past several months of focusing on building my backyard habitat, I’ve come to expect that I will see several birds at my feeders at any given time.  And especially with the new snow and my heated bird bath, I had come to anticipate looking out the window and seeing my many visitors.  Hearing the call of a Blue Jay and rushing to the window to see them rummage for the heaviest peanut to take into the neighbor’s lilac tree for a snack.  Having to fill my feeders every day (and sometimes twice a day) because the volume of avian visitors was eating me out of house and home in birdseed.

So I became very concerned over these past couple of weeks when my visitors went way down.  And I don’t just mean a few less goldfinches on the sock feeders, I’m talking almost nobody at ANY of my feeders.  Even my tray feeder, usually picked clean between the sparrows, finches, Jays, and cardinals, would have seeds remaining in it when I did my morning check and fill.  What was going on?  Had there been some sort of massive disease outbreak in the neighborhood that killed off all my feathered friends?  Had I misread the ingredients list on my latest birdseed purchase and it was full of undesirable filler?  What had I done to make my yard suddenly songless?

Well, thanks to the vast knowledge available on the internet, I was able to confirm that apparently it’s not just me and it’s not just my area.  December is apparently notorious for being the month with the least number of birds visiting bird feeders pretty much everywhere in the US.  The reasons are not 100% clear and probably are multi-faceted, but the prevailing opinion seems to be a combination of factors that lead to fewer at-feeder sightings…

  • Natural food sources (fruits, seeds, nuts, etc.) are still fairly prevalent in many places in December (in fact, late fall rains can knock more foods onto the ground and INCREASE the natural food availability in many places).  Since birds prefer natural food to what is offered in feeders, they are less inclined to visit.
  • As the weather gets colder, birds are more likely to flock together to roost at night and have their morning feed close to where they roosted.  So where previously birds were more spread out over the landscape, now they are concentrated (and apparently they are not concentrated in my yard).
  • Some people only put out bird seed in the winter, mistakenly believing that birds only eat/need supplemental feeding in the winter or that feeding at other times of the year will keep birds from migrating.  So not only are birds concentrated in limited areas, but there are more feeders (and therefore more competition) for their limited visits.
  • And some of it may just be perception.  The increased number of birds present at feeders in the months before (either traveling through for migration or adding winter ‘insulation’), makes the sudden decline in visitors even more evident.

Whatever the reason, I for one can’t wait for this depressing December dry-spell to end so that I can get back to recording lots of new and interesting visitors to my feeders.  They just look downright lonely out there right now…

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.