Suet is great to offer birds, but during hot summer months, suet can soften and melt, causing a mess at the backyard feeders and potential dangers to birds. There are ways to keep suet from melting, however, that can help you keep this treat at your feeders even when temperatures soar.
Why Feed Suet in Summer?
Suet packs a lot of calories into an easy-to-eat form. Many suet mixtures even contain seeds, insects and fruit bits that can appeal to a wide range of bird species, including bluebirds, woodpeckers, chickadees, and wrens. This is an ideal food for summer birds, when nesting adults need more calories to forage for their dependent chicks or to defend their nests from intruders. Young birds can also visit suet feeders for an easy meal with plenty of energy to help them continue to grow. Melted suet, however, can be more dangerous than helpful to both adult and immature birds.
When suet melts and drips, it can cause a number of problems. Some of these issues are merely a nuisance, but others can be real dangers for backyard birds.
- Spoilage: As suet heats up, its fat can go rancid and harbor fungus and bacteria that can be harmful to birds. While most birds will not eat food that has spoiled, they may be unable to tell when suet first starts to decay or there may not be other food sources available, so they inadvertently consume the unhealthy suet.
- Coating feathers: Fat and oil can be just as dangerous to birds' feathers as a toxic oil spill. Melted suet that smears on a bird's feathers will destroy their natural insulation and waterproofing, making the bird vulnerable to temperature changes and poor weather. This is even more pronounced when adult birds transfer melted suet to chicks in summer, and the chicks have even less protection.
- Smell: Melting suet that is going bad has a stronger, sharper smell than fresh suet. While most birds do not have a strong sense of smell and will not be bothered, the smell can irritate backyard birders or neighbors. Strong odors are also more likely to attracted unwanted feeder guests such as raccoons, rats, bears, feral cats or other animals. The smell might also attract pets that could become ill from the spoiled fat.
- Damage: Suet that drips onto a deck or patio can cause stains and discoloration, and suet dripped onto grass, shrubs or flowerbeds can kill the plants. A patch of melted suet can be nearly impossible to clean up without removing the affected plants entirely. If left unattended, suet smeared on grass or plants can damage lawn mowers or other equipment.
- Waste: While some ground-feeding birds may sample dripped suet, most birds will not feed on suet that has melted and dripped out of its feeder. This increases the cost of feeding birds, and birders on a budget might see their costs skyrocket if they need to continually replace melted suet cakes.
How to Keep It From Melting
Suet won't typically melt until the temperatures are consistently above 90 F/32 C, but it can soften at lower temperatures if the nights are as warm as the days. There are many ways to help keep suet firm, however, without removing this treat from your backyard buffet.
- Choose no-melt suet: Suet blends labeled as "no-melt" "no-drip" or "summer" are rendered repeatedly to raise their melting point, giving them more durability when temperatures are high. These blends are also mixed with other grains, cornmeal, and seeds to keep the cake bound together to resist melting. This suet might also be labeled as "suet dough" and is a great option to offer a high-fat treat to summer birds without as much melting.
- Placement: Suet offered to birds in a cooler, shady area will be more resistant to melting. Choose a feeder location that gets shade as much as possible, preferably later in the day when the air temperature will also have risen significantly. If no shade is available, adding a wide baffle or other covers over the feeder can provide shade to help minimize melting.
- Amount offered: If too much suet is offered to birds at once, the leftovers are more susceptible to melting and spoilage as the cake stays exposed to higher temperatures over multiple days. If you only have a few birds visiting the feeder, cut each suet cake into halves or quarters and only put out a smaller cake until it is consumed. Ideally, it is best to only offer as much suet as birds will consume in a single day.
- Freeze cakes: Freezing suet cakes not only keeps them fresher for a longer period of time but can also help them resist melting when you do add them to feeders. A frozen cake will take longer to warm up to its melting point, but birds will not be put off by the harder cake when they feed earlier in the day. The edges the birds can access will soften quickly, but the center of the cake will stay frozen until later in the day, making melting less likely.
- Catch trays: When the temperatures reach their summer peak, it can be all but impossible to prevent every single suet drip. Adding a small tray or plate beneath a suet feeder can catch leaks and make them much easier to clean up, helping avoid a lot of the trouble from the unwanted splatters.
By taking steps to minimize melting suet, it is possible to offer this nutritious, popular bird food all summer long, even in the hottest areas.
There will be times when melted suet is inevitable. Many birders have been dismayed to find a gooey puddle of melted suet oozing into the feeder's cracks and crevices, with extra suet dribbled on the deck, patio or plants below the feeder. When this happens, there are ways to clean up effectively so the suet does not cause further problems.
- Clean up when cold: If temperatures drop overnight, wait to clean up until early in the morning when it will be coolest and the suet will have hardened. This will make it easier to scrape up the suet so it can be discarded appropriately. Use a paint scraper or similar flat edge to scrape up as much suet from the ground as possible.
- Wipe up when warm: If temperatures remain high, such as during a heat wave, it will be easier to wipe up suet while it is warm and as fluid as possible. Use a disposable rag and start at the outside of the puddle, wiping gently toward the center to gather up as much suet as possible without making the puddle spread any wider.
- Cleaning suet from plants: Suet that has dripped on plants may be impossible to clean up without trimming the plants. Prune them carefully to remove all traces of dripped suet, and remove any mulch or gravel that has suet spilled on it as well. Do not put this material in a compost pile, but instead dispose of it in the trash.
- Cleaning suet from grass: If suet has dripped on the grass, it may be necessary to tear up a small section of sod to remove a bad spill. If only a small amount of suet has dripped, however, you can carefully trim the grass shorter to remove the greasy blades. In time, the grass will regrow to match the rest of the lawn.
- Cleaning feeders after suet spills: Most suet feeders have coated wires that are easy to clean with a damp cloth, but if suet has softened and liquefied, it may have run into the seams or crevices of the feeder. Soak the feeder in hot water with a grease-cutting soap to clean it, then rinse the feeder thoroughly before using it again.
Melted suet can be a pain, and responsible backyard birders will take all possible steps to be sure suet does not melt. When it does, however, understanding the importance of cleaning it up quickly and taking proper steps to tidy up will help backyard birders keep their suet feeders clean, safe and attractive to hungry birds.