Using Suet to Feed Backyard Birds

Suet Feeder and Bird Suet Feeding Tips

Downy Woodpecker on a Suet Feeder

River Wanderer / Flickr / Used With Permission

Suet is a hard animal fat that is an excellent source of high-calorie energy for birds, but it can also be messy and difficult to offer if it is not used in appropriate feeders or suet holders. By understanding how to feed suet and the best suet feeders to use, birders can give their flocks this nutritious treat easily and conveniently. Animal fat such as suet is high in calories and is easily digested by birds.

What Is Suet?

Suet is hard fat, usually white in color, that is found around the joints and kidneys of hoofed livestock, such as cattle and sheep. It has a relatively high melting point compared to other fats. While there is some use of suet in cooking, especially for baked pudding, this dense, hard fat is more often used by birding enthusiasts to provide birds with high-calorie food during cold winter months when other food supplies are scarce.

Types of Suet

Suet comes in a range of blends and can be molded into many different shapes and sizes. Cakes, balls, and plugs are the most familiar suet options, but crumbles, shreds, and shavings are also available, as are a range of seasonal novelty suet shapes such as wreaths, hearts, and bells. All are equally valuable to birds, but not all will fit in the same types of suet feeders.

The density, firmness, and consistency of the suet depend on the initial quality, how carefully it is rendered, its purity, and any extra ingredients such as seeds, nuts, insects, or fruit. The climate, weather, and other environmental factors can also affect suet, and birders should take those factors into consideration when feeding suet to their backyard birds.

In a climate with relatively warm winters, for example, it is important to avoid the softer suet mixtures with added fruit, as these are more likely to soften and spoil in the sunlight. And you may want to experiment with different commercial mixtures to determine which ones attract your favorite birds. If your feeders are inundated with flocks of starlings and grackles that chase away favorite species, for example, a pure suet without added seeds and nuts may invite your shy woodpeckers and nuthatches to return. Many birders make their own suet with customized blends best suited to their area and favorite birds.

At one time, chunks of suet were often given away for free at grocery stores and butcher shops, but these retailers are now more likely to offer it for sale at a very reasonable price—substantially lower than the specialty suet mixtures sold at birding supply stores.

European Robin Eating Suet Balls
Derek Σωκράτης Finch / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Birds That Benefit From Suet

Many birds will feed on suet, especially in cold weather, but it is especially attractive to woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, and starlings. Less frequently, wrens, creepers, cardinals, and warblers may feed on suet.

Suet Feeders

There are four main types of feeders that are popular for offering suet to birds. While many birders may prefer one type of suet holder, using several different suet feeders will attract even more suet-loving birds by appealing to different feeding preferences.

  • Suet cages: Cage feeders are the most popular type of suet feeder, and are typically made of coated wire for strength and easy cleaning. Cages may be made to hang independently or may be attached to hopper feeders that will hold seeds as well. Many cage suet feeders include tail props for woodpeckers or other clinging birds, and covers are also popular to protect the suet from the elements.
  • Suet logs: Simple logs with predrilled holes are made for feeding suet plugs to birds. The plugs are inserted into the holes and birds can cling to the wood, just as the birds would naturally cling to a tree trunk or branch. The wood keeps the suet dry and protected. These feeders are also easy to make with a spade drill bit the same diameter as suet plugs. Many log feeders will have natural bark or cut ridges to provide extra clinging security for feeding birds.
  • Mesh bags: A hanging mesh bag can be filled with suet for small clinging birds to enjoy. This is an easy suet feeder for recycling onion bags or similar items. This kind of feeder can accept balls, chunks, or cakes of suet rather than solid pieces sized to fill the feeder. Suet bags are not always best for feeding larger suet-loving birds like woodpeckers, but they are ideal for small birds such as nuthatches, tits, and chickadees.
  • Open trays: A suet cake or leftover pieces of suet can be added to a platform or tray feeder for many birds to sample, including birds that may never visit more specialized suet holders. Small suet chunks, pellets, or crumbles are made for tray feeders, or birders can shred or chop larger suet cakes into tasty bites that will tempt small birds. This is also a great way to get birds to try suet if they aren't used to it.

These basic feeder styles come in many different sizes and designs. Popular features of many suet feeders include:

  • Larger capacity to hold multiple suet cakes at once
  • Grills, cages, or mesh to exclude larger bully birds from the feeder
  • Built-in baffles to deter squirrels, raccoons, and other wildlife
  • Upside-down designs to keep larger birds and squirrels away

While suet feeders are popular, it is also possible to offer suet without a specialized feeder. Soft suet can be spread directly on the bark of a tree for woodpeckers, nuthatches, or creepers. If suet is too hard to spread, it can be gently heated until it softens and is spreadable.

Nuthatch on a Suet Log
Per / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

Common Problems

While feeding suet to backyard birds can be a great way to offer them fantastic nutrition and energy, if it is not offered properly it can cause problems. Fortunately, conscientious birders can easily overcome the most common problems with feeding suet.

  • Softening and melting: Because suet is rendered fat, it will soften in high heat or direct sunlight, such as when a feeder receives focused reflective light from windows. No-melt suet blends are available that have been more finely rendered and can withstand higher temperatures. Putting suet feeders in shaded areas can also keep the cakes from softening as quickly. Most birders choose to offer suet only in cooler months, but if placed properly, high-quality suet can be offered all year round—provided you take pains not to let it turn rancid.
  • Bully birds: Suet is a favorite food of many backyard birds, but less desirable birds such as European starlings and red-winged blackbirds will also visit suet feeders, often devouring the suet before other birds can feed. Choosing upside-down suet feeders or feeder designs with exterior cages will minimize the suet these larger birds can access without preventing smaller birds from feeding.
  • Rodents and other pests: Suet can be highly attractive to bird feeder pests such as mice, rats, raccoons, squirrels, and even bears. Feeders should be positioned carefully so these pests cannot access the suet. Offering only as much suet as can be eaten in a day or two will keep other animals from being attracted to leftover, uneaten suet. Suet feeders can also be moved indoors overnight so pests cannot visit after dark.
  • Spoiling: Suet can spoil in high temperatures and may go rancid, making it less attractive and unhealthy for the birds. To keep suet from spoiling, place it in a shaded, cool area and only offer as much suet as the birds can eat in a day or two. A chuck of suet that is in the feeder for more than two weeks old should be replaced. Unused suet can be frozen or stored in a refrigerator to keep it fresh until it is needed. Corn and peanuts in a suet mix can foster the growth of harmful bacteria, so such mixtures should be bought from a reputable source or made yourself. Suet cakes should be kept refrigerated until you put them out for birds.

Suet is a great addition to any backyard birder's buffet. Knowing how to offer suet to attract more birds while avoiding problems with this food will ensure that it is popular whenever birds need extra energy.

  • Can I feed suet to birds year-round?

    Birds will eat suet at any time of year, but it is most important to them in the fall and winter when other food sources are scarce. Moreover, warm summer months may cause suet to get warm and soft, and it will turn rancid much faster.

  • Are there plant-based suet options?

    If you dislike using fat from slaughtered animals, there are specialty types made from vegetable shortening or peanut butter you can try. Spoilage can be more problematic, though, so take pains not to let this kind of suet get old in the feeder. If it is hasn't been eaten within a week—or if it gets visibly soft or discolored—clean the feeder and fill it with new suet.

  • Where is the best place to position a suet feeder?

    Suet feeders should be hung where they are visible, within 10 to 12 feet of perching areas, such as shrubs and trees. Avoid putting feeders near glass windows where birds may collide with them.

  • Can I use bacon fat in homemade suet?

    While birds will eat bacon fat added to homemade suet, commercially packaged bacon usually contains preservatives that may harm birds. It's best not to use bacon fat in your preparations.

  • Will squirrels bother a suet feeder?

    Squirrels do not like pure suet, but they may be drawn to it because of the seeds and nuts that are often mixed in. If your feeder is troubled by squirrels, try using only pure suet. Or, you can use a special squirrel-proof suet feeder, which usually features a double-layer cage that allows birds to poke their heads in to feed while excluding squirrels.

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