Fat is where it’s at for the birds

After gorging on fatty gravies and pastries through the holidays the last thing many of us are thinking about is more fat. However, in the bird world the right kind of fat is not only preferred it is a necessary nutrient that sustains life on these cold winter days.

It is also important to the adult bird for reproduction and migration and especially important for nestlings as they grow and develop neurological systems.

On cold nights, birds expend more energy generating sufficient body heat, further depleting their precious energy reserves. Needless to say, winter is a stressful period for non-migratory birds. Harsh environmental conditions, combined with inadequate diet, weaken bird immune systems making them more susceptible to disease. Suet supplements the diet of wintering birds and encourages overall health while providing crucial energy needed to survive the winter.

Suet is a combination of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Fats are concentrated forms of energy and, per unit weight, provide more than twice the caloric energy as protein or carbohydrates of equivalent weight. Fats are a source of productive energy as well as essential fatty acids and serve many crucial functions regarding growth and overall health. Fats also carry fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K – many having antioxidant properties. Good quality saturated fats are most beneficial and found in beef tallow or non-hydrogenated lard. Peanut butter can be added to tallow or lard. Vegetable fats found in less expensive suet cakes are not suitable for birds.

Suet is beneficial for migratory birds also. During their journey, migratory birds stop for food and to refuel. Calorie and protein-rich foods are scarce or simply not available during winter. It offers much needed energy for generating body heat, migration, breeding, and overall survival in often harsh conditions. Suet also frequently contains additional bird-favorite ingredients such as seed, fruits, and insects. While suet is traditionally thought of as a winter substitute for insects, it can be presented year-round.

Which species prefer suet? At higher elevations you would find chickadees and nuthatches gathered around suet cakes. But in the Verde Valley most commonly woodpeckers, titmice, kinglets, jays wrens, even bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers eagerly consume suet. As a storm was approaching we even saw white-crowned sparrows and house finches frantically gorging on suet.

You can purchase suet cages at Jay’s Bird Barn and neatly cut blocks of suet with peanuts, sunflower seed, fruit pieces and even insects or you can make your own.

Dena is a seasoned naturalist, birding guide and educator. As manager of Jay’s Bird Barn in West Sedona she is available to answer questions about wild birds and enhancing your backyard habitat. You may contact her at (928) 203-5700 or dena@jaysbirdbarn.com.

4 1/2 cups ground fresh suet (from butcher)

½ cup cornmeal

1/2 cup shelled sunflower seeds

1/4 cup millet

1/4 cup dried and chopped fruit (currants, raisins, or berries)

3/4 cup dried and fine ground meat (optional)



1. Melt suet in a saucepan over low heat.

2. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl.

3. Allow the suet to cool until slightly thickened, then stir it into the mixture in the bowl. Mix thoroughly.

4. Pour or pack into forms or suet feeders; smear onto tree trunks or overhanging limbs and branches; or pack into pine cones.

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