White-breasted nuthatch

This winter the jet stream is following the same path that it did last year and sending arctic air shooting straight down through the upper Midwest.  Inevitably the polar air will shift back to the north, but while it puts a strain on our heating resources, we can’t forget the impact it has on wildlife.

Most people put out seeds of one sort or another, but the other type of food you should consider putting out for the birds now is suet  Technically suet is animal fat rendered from the liver of a cow, but any fatty pieces will do.  Fat is a major source of dietary energy and per unit weight, contains more than twice the caloric energy as the equivalent of protein and carbohydrates.  Not only do birds have to deal with the extended cold temperatures, but they also have extremely fast metabolisms and burn through their fat reserves quickly, using up to 15 percent of their body weight just trying to keep warm overnight.


Black-capped Chickadee

In the wild, this source of energy is found in the carcasses of animals that have died. Any large animal killed by a predator soon attracts an assortment of birds from crows and ravens to chickadees and blue jays. They wait patiently until they have a chance to swoop in and grab a bit of fat or meat. It is these birds that help make sure that no animal part goes to waste.  You could call them nature’s clean-up crews.

Few of us would want to haul a deer carcass into our front yard in order to watch this process and thankfully we have a much neater and easy alternative.  There are many varieties of suet available, and at, you have the option of purchasing either the square block or a round ball in a mesh bag.  The square ‘cakes’ fit neatly into plastic coated wire suet cages available wherever birdfeeders are sold.  These feeders are simple, inexpensive and last for years.  Suet cakes are available in a variety of ‘flavors’ to attract specific species with the addition of various fruits or nuts.

It is the insect eating birds that seek out suet, since the availability of the natural source is so limited in winter.  This includes the downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, the red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, black-capped chickadees, and oh yes – the blue jays, which are more omnivores than insectivores.  Crows are also known to visit suet feeders and given enough time will empty them out.  It is best to mount the suet feeders on the trunk of a tree at eye level or higher.  Most of the woodpeckers that come to these feeders use the bark of the tree to grasp and hold themselves in place.  If you hang one from a branch, keep it close to a trunk for the same reason.  Chickadees and nuthatches can cling to the feeder with ease.  We have one suet feeder that looks like a little house and the suet cake goes in the bottom.  It has not been as popular with the birds, but last month I saw a hairy woodpecker hanging upside down on this particular feeder and pecking away.

By adding suet to your feeding repertoire you are very likely going to see an increase in the variety of birds taking advantage of your generosity and providing you with more winter entertainment.

Kate Crowley




Red-breasted nuthatch


Downy Woodpecker