This pheasant was a recent visitor to my feeders, cleaning up the spilled seed, along with the Junco on the right.

I have a background in Ornithology (the study of birds) almost by accident. When I went back to school in the mid ’90’s to get a degree in Biology, I was determined to come out of school with experience I could put on a resume (with my first degree, I had failed to do this, and I had learned my lesson). While looking for a summer job, I saw a posting for field research with the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, in the mountains of Arizona. The job was “nest searching”, that is, looking for the nests of birds, and monitoring them to see if they were successful. It paid a whopping $500 per month (it’s gone up considerably in the last 15 years) and we worked 12 days on/two days off (still the case today) while camping and living in tents. But most importantly, no experience was necessary. Sign me up.

The job was a HUGE learning experience for me. It’s also where I met my husband. But that’s a story for another blog entry. Suffice it to say that I went from barely being able to identify an American Robin to someone who has a lifelong interest in birds. (I would not call it a passion…I’ve met those people…love them, but I am not one of them). I’ve since taught about birds, written about birds, and worked to further birding tourism.

Chickadees have always been one of my favorite birds, simply for their curiosity. They are such a small bird, yet they will always come right over to see who you are and what you are doing.

I’m not much of a feeder of birds in the summer time. I would rather create good habitat and plant bird appropriate landscapes then shovel out money for buckets of bird seed. But during the cold dark winter, seeing birds at my feeders can be the highlight of my day. And winter birds, who do not migrate (or have migrated and THIS is where they spend their winters) have a larger need for goodies at the feeders.

Years ago, I jumped on the South Beach Diet bandwagon (a diet I still believe in, by the way, when I have the willpower to stay away from sugar). I was ridding my cupboards of “to be avoided” high glycemic high saturated fat foods, and realized I could make suet, a high calorie bird treat, with some of the ingredients. I now make a couple of batches every winter. I like to put it out after a particularly big snow or cold snap, when the birds have an especially high demand for energy packed foods.

 
 
 
 

Finished suet. This was a small batch, as I was almost out of cornmeal. Yes, you can buy prepackaged suet at the store…but isn’t this more fun?

Suet Recipe

  • 1 part flour (I use whole wheat, but use whatever you have on hand)
  • 1 part peanut butter (I specifically buy a really inexpensive brand on sale for this purpose)
  • 1 part shortening (lard would also work, or meat drippings like bacon grease if you have a lot of it – I save my meat drippings for dog biscuits)
  • 4 parts cornmeal
  • a handful of bird seed

Mix ingredients in a standing mixer, or use a hand mixer or just mix it all together with your hands. It should be about the consistency of cookie dough. Press dough into a pan lined with wax paper, to make for easier removal later. (If your one “part” equals one “cup” this will fill a 7 x 11 pan.) Chill in refrigerator (or just set outside if it’s cold) until firm. Cut into chunks that fit your suet feeders. Fill feeders, and freeze the rest in zip top bags for easy filling later.

This woodpecker (Downy? Hairy? Can YOU tell which kind? I’m thinking Downy) has found the suet. Why the wood top (which I added to this store-bought feeder)? It keeps the Starlings and Jays from being able to easily eat all the suet. Only the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches can easily climb upside down to get at the treats.

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2010, where we’re miles away from spring, but at least we don’t have to brave the winter storms outside like the birds do.

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