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Something for the Birds

Make a nutritious and delicious
winter snack for your
backyard feathered friends.

Winter is a challenging time for all the birds that choose to stick around and spend the winter here in New Jersey. 

It is cold, so there are no bugs flying around. The ground is frozen, so no bird can hope to dig up the occasional worm. Finally, all the seeds and berries that have not already been eaten are covered with leaves or, even worse, a layer of ice or snow.  


Feeding the neighborhood birds is a great opportunity to teach children a bit about nature and our environment while having a ton of fun. Kids love making things, and they love watching the birds munch on the yummy food they have prepared. Meanwhile, your project can help those poor, starved creatures survive the winter. It will also liven up your back yard a bit… or your windowsill if you live in the city. Yes, the outdoors will remain brown and dreary and sleepy, like every winter, but at least you will see some excited birds darting about every time you look out the window. Keep reading for a few ideas to get started.

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Make a suet treat

A suet cake is a mixture of bird food, such as seeds or nuts or berries, held together by an animal fat, such as suet or lard. Suet cakes provide birds with high-energy food for the winter months.

For this recipe, you can use pre-made lard, which is readily available in most large grocery stores. It is in the refrigerated section, with odd cuts of meat. You are also welcome to render your own suet from cuts of beef fat from your butcher or to render your own lard from pork. To do this, chop up the pork or beef fat into small pieces and heat them in a non-stick pan on low to medium heat. When heated, the fat will melt and liquefy. Be careful not to burn the fat. When all the fat has been rendered from meat and skin, strain your fat through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Let it cool completely and solidify before using it in the recipe below, or it will not cake correctly. Of course, the amount of ingredients will depend on how much rendered fat you have, so adjust your recipe as needed.

  • 1 cup of animal fat will make 7 to 8 cups of bird cake. The proportions are as follows:
  • 1 part sold animal fat, either lard or suet (see above)
  • 1 part peanut butter, either smooth or crunchy
  • 3 parts dry cornmeal, either white or yellow
  • 3 parts goodies for birds (your choice mix of bird seed, finely chopped cranberries or raisins, and/or finely chopped peanuts) 

1Prepare forms for your suet cakes. I used disposable plastic cups in the picture, but you can recycle empty yogurt or sour cream containers. Clean and dry the containers and set them out on your work surface. Spray the inside with non-stick spray such as PAM. For each container, take a piece of twine approximately 18 inches long, and tie the ends together into a knot. Then, place the twine into the container knot-side down, but with a part of it hanging out of the top. The twine will serve as a hanger for the feeder. 

2Heat fat and peanut butter in a nonstick pan over low heat. Keep stirring until the mixture is melted. When mixture is melted and smooth, remove from heat. 

3Add cornmeal to the mixture. Again, stir until smooth.

4Add the bird goodies to the mixture. You are welcome to add any mix of bird seed, finely chopped dry cranberries or raisins, or chopped peanuts. Different birds like different food, so definitely read up or experiment. Mix well.

5Pour the mixture into the containers you have prepared. With a fork or some other utensil, reposition your twine so it is in the center of the container and runs all the way to the bottom.

6Put the filled containers in the refrigerator until the mixture is solid. This may take anywhere from a few hours to overnight. You can also put the containers in the freezer to speed up the process.

7When you are ready to feed the birds, pop the suet out of the containers. You can break disposable containers such as old yogurt cups, but you may have to use a knife to pry the feeders out of others. If you put your mix into the freezer, you can run the outside of your container under hot tap water for approximately 20 seconds. This melts just the very outside of the feeders, making it easier to slip them out of the containers. Then, hang the bird feeders outside for the birds. The bird feeders will also keep in the freezer (in a freezer-safe bag) for up to 6 months. 


Make an apple feeder

Birds love peanut butter, probably for the same reason they find animal fat so tasty. It is very nutrient dense, full of fat and protein and very nourishing for the birds, so helps them get through the winter.  Also, it is an ingredient we all have at home which makes our DYI spontanous and nearly effortless.

1Carefully poke a hole in a medium-sized apple, starting at the stem and working your way down. I used a knitting needle to do this. Do it in a slow and measured way to avoid cracking the apple in half.

2Thread twine or string through the hole (I used a crochet needle to make short work of this), and tie it firmly. Leave enough twine at the top to allow for tying the bird feeder to a branch.

3Cover the apple liberally with peanut butter. 

4Roll the apple in bird seed of your choice. If you want to make an extra-special treat for your feathered friends, you can add finely chopped raisins or dried cranberries or peanuts to mix as well. Pat the seeds into the peanut butter to ensure they stick. My three year old daughter did this part, and she was very happy to help.

5Hang your bird feeder outside.

Make a pinecone feeder

This project is very similar to making the apple feeders.

1Pick some pinecones. If they are not very open, you can you can put them in the oven at about 200 degrees for approximately a half hour to open them up. Make sure to line your baking sheet with aluminum foil, as the pinecones may leak sap when heated, which will ruin your baking sheet.

2Attach twine or string to the pinecone to serve as the hanger. 

3Cover the pinecone liberally with peanut butter. 

4Roll the pinecone in bird seed of your choice. If you want to make an extra-special treat for your feathered friends, you can add finely chopped raisins or dried cranberries or peanuts to mix as well. Pat the seeds into the peanut butter to ensure they stick. 

5Hang the pinecone feeder outside for birds to enjoy.

Fill up a bird feeder

If you do not have the time, energy, or inclination to make your own bird feeders, go out and buy one. There are many kinds readily available in stores, which dispense bird seed mixtures of all varieties or commercially-made suet cakes. They are just as tasty for the birds, and no less fun to watch.

A few additional tips:

  • Animal fat will melt and turn rancid at around 70 degrees. Do not hang your suet bird feeders in direct sunlight. Also, after a warm spell, you may have to throw the bird feeder away.
  • When hanging your bird feeder, choose a branch that is sturdy, high off the ground to protect the birds from cats, and preferably a bit sheltered from the predators above as well.
  • Squirrels need food too, so I do not necessarily mind feeding them a bit. However, if you do, I have read that adding a bit of cayenne pepper to the bird feeder will keep squirrels away. This part should not be done by kids. Keep the cayenne pepper away from little hands and eyes.
  • Make sure to hang your bird feeder in an area that you and your kids can see when looking out the window, or which you can observe every time you go outside.
  • Have fun watching the birds as they fly around and munch on their yummy snacks.

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