Start with Suet
In my first article, Backyard Birding: How it All Began, I presented the many questions I had to consider when I started backyard birding in 2013. After figuring out that feeding them was the key to attracting birds, the choices and potential expense for feeders and foods got to be pretty overwhelming. In future articles, I’ll address the wider range of choices, but for now, I have a suggestion for a very simple and inexpensive way to get started:
the suet feeder
For less than $5 and very little effort, you can bring wildlife to your own backyard, and do your part to preserve and protect nature.
The Suet Cake
Suet is typically sold in square cakes, usually bonded with animal fat, and packed with oats, corn, nuts, berries, and other fruits, depending on which flavor you purchase. They're available at most hardware, garden, pet, bird or discount stores. They cost as low as $1-3 each in store, and sometimes less than $1 if purchased in bulk. Each cake can last days or weeks, depending on how many hungry birds you have in your yard. Another benefit of suet is that it is much less messy than loose bird seed because the fruit, nuts and seeds stay packed in the fat and don't scatter as easily.
The Suet Basket
The suet feeder is a simple square-shaped, light-weight wire basket with a chain and hook attached, that can be hung from any small hook or thin branch. You can pick one up for as low as $2-3 in store. Hook and chain sizes vary from brand to brand, and is something to consider when deciding where to hang it. There are generally two square basket sizes – small and large. The smaller ones, about 5" square, are the easiest to find in stores, and typically hold one suet cake. The larger ones are generally used for seed and mealworms cakes and are a little harder to find, so I would start with a small one.
Total investment for a small suet feeder and cake can cost as low as $4-6. Not bad!
Options for Hanging the Basket
If you don’t have a suitable hook or branch on which to hang the feeder, you can purchase a bird feeder pole, which looks like a shepherd’s hook, for $10-$20, or less if purchased in bulk. That’s for a simple, short, light hook that sticks in the ground, which is sufficient to bear the weight of the lightweight feeder, cake and bird that lands on it. There are numerous options for hanging a bird feeder, from taller and sturdier shepherd's hooks, to branch hooks, to deck mounted hooks to elaborate feeding stations. Cost varies substantially. More on feeders and hooks in future articles.
There are numerous brands of suet available, and they each carry a variety of flavors. I typically purchase whichever brand is available at the store where I happen to be shopping that day. Birds seem to love the peanut butter, nut and berry flavors. There's also apple, orange, cherry, sunflower, hot pepper, and many others. I recommend experimenting with a variety yourself to see which flavor your birds like best. You can buy them in individual packs or in bulk. They are often less expensive when you purchase them in the store rather than online since they are small items. Here are just a few of the many buying choices.
Keeping it Simple
Though I often overcomplicate my buying decisions, when it comes to getting started with backyard wild bird feeding, I found that the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle works best. There are fancier suet baskets in fun designs, and ones that attach to the sides of larger seed feeders. However, the simple square basket has been the consistent winner in my backyard. Birds like an easy reach, especially the small-beaked birds. And I like that they are easy to keep clean, durable and inexpensive to replace. Quite often, I will find that my suet baskets have been pulled off their hooks and dragged to other parts of the yard, probably by larger creatures of the night. But so far, the have always stood up to the rough treatment that wildlife and nature can inflict.
Backyard Suet Eaters
Not only is a suet feeder an inexpensive way to start Backyard Birding, it also attracts many types birds. I have over a dozen species, including sparrows, catbirds, blue jays, bluebirds and woodpeckers. They feast throughout the day and every season. Winter seems to be the most popular season because the fat content helps to keep the birds warm. Common backyard birds you might not see at the suet feeder are cardinals. They tend to prefer plain seeds according to my observations.
A Popular Choice
It may take a while for the birds to find your feeder, but once they do, they will literally tweet out the news to their friends. When I started, a cake would last a few weeks. Now it only lasts a few days. Before you know it, your house will find many “followers” and become the most popular restaurant in town.