Of seeds and suet
Suet is fat, which is particularly helpful to the birds of winter because it provides an energy source.
Mike Lanzone, a field ornithologist at Powdermill Nature Reserve near Rector, offers the following advice on suet feeders and recipes for suet paste and suet cakes:
Feeders generally resemble a wire-mesh cage, and Lanzone prefers one with a rubberized coating, which makes it easy to clean and provides a comfortable perch.
You can purchase suet cakes or buy raw suet from your butcher or a grocery store. Ingredients may include mixed seed, nuts, peanut butter, dried fruit, calcium and insects.
Suet pastes are not readily available in stores but can easily be made at home. Here's a recipe for suet paste, which is used to fill the holes of a feeder log year-round, or from September through early June:
Combine 1 part peanut butter, 1 part shortening, 1 part whole-wheat flour, 3 parts cornmeal and 1 part cracked corn.
Pour suet into a rectangular or square cake pan. Add 1/2 cup of mixed seeds, which will sink into the suet. Add any other ingredients, such as cornmeal. Place pan in freezer. After 15 minutes, add 1/2 cup of seed, so the seed stays mostly on the top. When the suet hardens, seed will be on both sides instead of just on the bottom. Cut the suet into blocks, wrap them in waxed paper, and put them in the freezer.
Pour a small amount of suet into small mixing bowl. Add your favorite mixed seed and mix well. Continue to add seed until all is coated with suet. Press seeds firmly into rectangular or square cake pan. Place pan in freezer and let harden. Cut into blocks, wrap in waxed paper and store in freezer.
Small black-oil sunflower seeds are favored by smaller species, including chickadees, nuthatches and titmice. Striped sunflower seeds are popular with blue jays and cardinals. These seeds must be cracked so the shells will accumulate under the feeder. Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive but there's no mess.
Niger (thistle seed) is popular among finches.
There are basically three types of feeders: hopper - which looks like a house with Plexiglas sides on top of a platform where the seed is dispensed as birds eat it; tube - hollow cylinders with multiple ports and perches; and platform - simple flat and raised surfaces on which you spread seed.
More important than the type of feeder is location, says Lanzone.
Remembering that the priority is to see the birds visiting your back yard, place the feeder where you can see it from a favorite window. It should also be near cover.
"Birds feel uncomfortable foraging or spending long periods of time away from cover," Lanzone says. Cover provides birds with a means to escape the elements - rain, wind and temperature - and predators.
"When presented with the option, birds will utilize a yard with cover for longer periods of time and more frequently than a yard without any cover," he says.
Cover can be anything from a brush pile to trees, plants, shrubs, flowers and tall grasses.
Don't be concerned if the birds don't seem to be flocking to your feeder immediately; if you've followed the basic advice, the word will soon spread among birds, and others will follow. It may also take some time to re-establish your feeder's popularity after an extended absence.