New Year’s for the Birds

Varied Thrush on fence
Word is out! FOOD & WATER!

The days may be getting longer, but we’re just now settling into winter proper. I have never quite understood this topsy-turvey concept. Today we awoke to a shivering 20-degree morning under a frosty blanket; last week, we were warmer than Orlando; a month earlier, we were buried under 2 feet of snow and temps in the teens. In between, we’ve been hammered by winds, rains, floods, and everything in between. And they say winter has just begun.

Whatever the weather is up to at this time of year, one thing for certain, there is always a frenzy of activity beneath the bird feeder. We may sit in our cozy home roasting chestnuts and singing carols, but for them, it’s just another day about survival.

Ok. So maybe we’re just a couple of nuts roasting by a propane fire and are really more into vintage blues than Harold’s angels, but you get the idea.

I will spare you the sordid details, but I confess, I’m addicted to feeding the birds – hence, the frenzy. I mean, once you start, you can’t really stop, can you? I confided to our neighbor, who just happens to run a nursery, that it was my main source of entertainment, which earlier in my life would have seemed quite pathetic, but he quickly assured me that this is, in fact, a *good* thing. His quick response also told me I had met a fellow addict; we instantly bonded and were fast forming our own little support group. “SOME” people, he confided, actually get on airplanes for no other reason than to go see a certain bird. I nodded in understanding. The cost of my own addiction was starting to approach rising airfare status. Would the money I spend on feed be enough for a trip to the Galapagos? I didn’t want to do the math. I purchased a couple of salal plants, some kinnickinnick, and some bearberries – all good plants for birds – wished him a Happy New Year, and left.

And then I got to thinking – I may not exactly be Martha Stewart, but why not make my own bird treats?

Bird Muffin Treats

"Muffins" made of suet, peanut butter, bird seed, dried fruit

Suet muffin for the birds
Mmmm….good enough for a bird to eat!
“Muffins” made of suet, peanut butter, bird seed, dried fruit, and more

Friends, I think I am onto something here. For my inspiration, I consulted a booklet, which at the moment is lost in the post-holiday chaos, but when I find it, I will post the title in the comment section. It has handy charts of typical backyard birds, what they eat, which are the most nutritious foods, and some delicatessen ideas.

I purchased some beef suet from the local market and melted the fat out of it. Tallow is rendered from beef; lard from pork — something I learned from my soap-making days — and the tallow can be quite hard when it is cool; lard is softer.

I also assembled a few other ingredients: dried fruit (raisins), sunflower seeds, and peanut butter are sure bets. The book also suggested leftover spaghetti noodles, a surprise, but something I just happened to have, along with some cooked apples.

I put a little of each in some paper-lined muffin tins, sprinkled on a little sand, patted it down, and topped everything with the liquid fat, which congealed into a nice thick cake. I kept one out for the birds and put the rest in the freezer.

These, according to the manual, are supposed to be particularly appealing to robins, which live here year round and like to eat off the ground. They are also quite appealing to our fat yellow lab, Ginger Roll, who didn’t seem to mind the sand. Based on her indigestion, however, future cakes will be hung in netted bags or wire boxes.

A Very Cool Bird Feeder

Golden-crowned sparrow eats off the trunk
Golden-crowned sparrow eats off the trunk

If making greasy muffins is not your style, you can always just smear peanut butter on the trunk of a tree, and the nuthatches will be forever grateful – or whatever feeling they have for as long as their little bird brains allow them to think about it. Enjoying a good find and living in the moment is a good lesson for us all, I would think.

You could also smoosh it between the spaces in a pine cone, roll the cone in bird seed, and then hang it from a tree.

Drilling holes in log to make bird feeder
A 1.5" drill bit is used to drill holes in log for bird feeder
Hanging log bird feeder
Hang the log from the tree; fill holes with suet and seed

ORRR, you could get fancy, like we did, and instead of a pine cone, drill some holes in a log and fill them with a mixture of melted suet and an assortment of nuts, grains, and seeds, such as whole & shelled sunflower seeds, thistle, millet, quinoa, crushed peanuts….(nix on the noodles, I’d say – keep it concentrated energy foods). We drilled small holes beneath the feeder holes into which we inserted dowels for perches – and then hung the whole thing from the tree.

Wow. They really like it.

New Year’s Morning Update: It is a sunny but chilly (20 degrees) morning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many and such a variety of birds at the feeder. All the little regulars: finches, wrens, sparrows, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches…they’re having so much fun. Downy woodpeckers are attacking the fat in the log feeders. Thrushes are dominating the pile of apples at the base of the tree. Jaybirds come swooping in and gobble up corn kernels by the dozen before flying off. Quail are mixing everything up at the base of the main feeder, picking up leftover fallen seeds. Mourning doves, always in pairs, also paid us a visit. Robins and towhees, also steady residents. A squirrel scampered down and around the tree, picked up a few choice morsels, and raced off again. At one point, several starlings, which I’ve seen completely clean our cherry tree in very short order, flew in with much fanfare and a lot of flapping of wings and pretty much dominated everything. The highlight of the morning: a red-shafted flicker – not something we see very often. A huge woodpecker-like bird, he pecked deep into the crevices of the bark of the trunk. His coloring is beautiful. Everyone takes turns at the water dish. Everyone, though very different, seems to understand that everyone needs to eat. Everybody gets a turn. Very cool.

 Chickadee at log birdfeeder
Chickadee at feeder (picture taken through a window)

I could watch them all day. I can’t wait to make them more treats. Clearly, their lives are a little bit easier this winter. And does it really matter whether I ever get to see the Galapagos in person?

My plan for the new year, however, is to grow more plants that provide natural habitat and bird feed throughout the year, so there is plenty available whether I am here or not.  My nursery friend agrees that it’s a good plan, although he admits that even though there is plenty of bird habitat and natural food at his nursery, the birds still like to hang out at the feeder.

Course, if they are not so dependent on my food supply, maybe we could take off for someplace warm.

Or not. I am ok with staying here and watching the birds. They sure are fat.

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