When it's frightfully cold outdoors, cardinals, blue jays, finches and woodpeckers could use your help.
Natural food sources such as insects, fruits and seeds are long gone, so your bird feeders could offer the nutrition they need.
But, feeding birds can get a little pricey. A 50-pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds costs close to $30, while a 50-pound bag of safflower seed runs almost $50. Feeders can also be expensive.
Here, bird enthusiasts help you learn how you can have a little fun making food and feeders that are affordable.
Carla Brown, who helps create outdoor activities for the National Wildlife Federation at www.nwf.org/activityfinder likes to turn an empty cardboard egg carton into a homemade suet feeder. A foam carton is not recommended because animals may ingest bits, and the material is not biodegradable.
Her children, Nora and Russell, ages 7 and 4, respectively, like to help mom with projects.
"This actually smells kind of yummy," says Nora, mixing the shortening and peanut butter for the suet.
"I bet I would like it if I were a bird," says Russell.
Carla, who lives in Reston, Va., paints the egg carton green, hoping the birds associate green with something yummy. Plus, the green indicates the egg carton has a real purpose -- that it's not a piece of trash stuck in the tree, she says. You can always leave the carton natural, too.
>Homemade suet feeder
Gather the materials:
1 cardboard egg carton
Green acrylic paint, washable when working with children
Mixing bowl and spoons
Needle nose pliers
Paint brush or painting sponges
Painting apron or smock, if working with children -- an old T-shirt can work
2 thick rubber bands (like the ones from when you buy broccoli)
Suet (about 3 cups) or homemade filling made from ingredients below
Wire clothes hanger or heavy gauge wire
Cut holes in the bottom of each bump in the egg carton. Keep the egg carton intact; don't separate the top from the bottom. Cut holes about the size of a nickel. This is a safe activity for a child if you use children's scissors and show how to carefully puncture the bump first, then cut out the hole.
Paint the egg carton green. This step is optional, but it is fun and it makes your egg carton look more attractive when you hang it in the tree.
Mix the filling for the egg carton. If you don't want to purchase premade suet, you can mix your own from these ingredients, which feel like greasy cookie dough in the end. Measuring ingredients is not necessary.
1 part peanut butter, crunchy is better
1 part shortening
1 part flour
3 parts cornmeal
1 part cracked corn
1 part sunflower seeds and/or mixed seed
Fill the egg carton with suet or your homemade filling. Put down newspaper to protect your table, because some filling might ooze out of the holes during this step. Fill each cup to the brim -- even to overflowing. Then close the egg carton just like when it contains eggs.
Get two heavy duty elastics, the kind used to hold broccoli stalks together. Have your child hold the egg carton vertically while you stretch the elastic over the top and down between some of the bumps. Do this at the other end as well. This holds it together.
Put a wire, such as a hanger, around the middle of the feeder. Use needle-nose pliers to unfurl a wire hanger. Then wrap the wire around the middle of the feeder and start twirling it so it forms a tight circle. Wrap the wires around the back of the carton. It takes two adults to pull the wire nice and tight.
Hang the suet feeder. Position your feeder vertically along a tree trunk or branch. Try to position it so the birds have something to stand on while eating. Use the wire to wrap around the trunk or branch. Use your pliers to tighten the wire and twirl it securely on the tree.
Note: This feeder should ideally only be put out in cold weather because suet can go bad when it is warm. If it looks like you might get rain, remove your feeder from the tree and put it in your freezer until it gets cold again. Cardboard egg cartons are not waterproof.
Another homemade suet
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 1/2 cups minute oats
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1 cup lard
1 cup white flour
1/4 cup sugar
Soften peanut butter in large bowl in microwave until soupy. Mix in flour and sugar. Add cornmeal, followed by oats. Put in 8-by-8-inch containers and refrigerate. When suet hardens, cut into pieces to fit suet holder.
-- Gail Claydon, member Hampton Roads Bird Club, southeastern Virginia