Like Jack Sprat's wife, birds love fat.
And a ready supply of fat can be very useful to them, especially in winter, when simply staying alive can prove difficult.
This was brought home to me in striking fashion once when I was banding birds. I weighed a captured song sparrow one afternoon just before the onset of a blizzard. Then 40 hours later I trapped the same sparrow. In that brief period it had lost a quarter of its weight.
Think about that. An equivalent weight loss for a 160-pound human would be 40 pounds. That might seem like an attractive way to diet, but it would surely kill you in the process.
Some studies also have shown that birds have to consume from 50 to 100 percent of their body weight each day. For one carefully observed chickadee, this meant capturing and consuming one average-sized insect every 2.5 seconds.
Bird-watchers can take advantage of these facts to attract birds by putting out suet for them.
The rewards can be great. Species attracted to suet in this area include: downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, flickers, chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, blue jays, golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets, brown creepers and, of course, the omnipresent starlings. Still rarer birds like thrashers, towhees, thrushes and warblers occasionally visit suet feeders or for tidbits dropped to the ground under them.
Now, while those birds await your catering, let's get down to suet basics.
Suet is animal fat, specifically the fat surrounding the kidneys of cows and sheep. (Deer too -- hunters take note, as birds are especially attracted to deer suet.) It is pure and hard and has a waxy appearance. From 15 to 20 pounds can be taken from a single animal.
Years ago, butchers were happy to give suet to anyone who asked, but today most fat is removed from carcasses at meat-packing plants, and very little arrives in retail stores. Happily, with birders asking for it, some butchers again provide suet -- however, quite reasonably, for a price.
Once you have suet, you can simply hang it out in an onion bag. Most birders prefer, however, to purchase suet feeders. These are hardware-cloth containers with the metal plastic-coated so that birds will not injure their bills. I am told that those with roofs seem less attractive to starlings.
My neighbor Ann Fourtner informs me that squirrels are not attracted to pure suet but that they are to any suet product that has other ingredients added. I understand that rendered suet still enjoys this attractive feature.
To render suet, simply melt it under low heat. To avoid smelling up your house, consider doing this in an electric frying pan in your garage. Once it is melted, you can remove the stringy parts. Then when it is cooled, you can cut it into blocks for feeding. Refrigerate extra blocks in freezer bags. Alternatively, partially cooled suet can be stuffed into crevices in suet logs or pine cones.
Unfortunately, it often takes birds some time to find pure suet. For that reason, many birders stir in other ingredients in various proportions during the rendering process: chunky peanut butter, lard, no-shell birdseed, sugar, cornmeal, flour, raisins or dried cranberries and even crushed eggshells or sand to help birds digest their food.
Finally, Mike Galas offers a great suggestion: cut a 1.5-inch hole in a coconut, replace the liquid -- "drink it, it tastes good" -- with a suet mix and hang the coconut out as your feeder.