Make Suet Cakes for Outdoor Birds
What you will need
*indicates items available at Schnarr’s
Suet or some other kind of food grade fat that gets solid
Dried fruits (optional)
Chopped nuts (optional)
Leftover bread, cereal and crackers (optional)
Long thin knife (doesn’t have to be very sharp – could be something like a fettling knife for ceramics or something similar)
Clean food containers for molding
*Spatula and *mixing spoon
Double boiler setup – *saucepan, *temperature resistant glass measuring cup
*Hot pot pad, *oven mitt, *jar lifter or other tool for lifting hot containers safely
I am a member of the St. Louis Master Gardener program and I do some of my volunteer work at Litzinger Road Ecology Center. LREC offers enrichment and training sessions for volunteers to increase our knowledge. Sometimes we get to take part in fun “crafty” activities that have an ecological benefit. We made bird suet cakes one day at LREC and later I also experimented with making some at home.
Feeding birds in our backyards is a way to get a good look at birds up close while providing them with a nutritional food bonus to make their lives a little easier. Suet and fats are good foods for many birds when it is late winter and natural food sources are low – fats are also most likely to attract birds who eat a lot of insects, the kind of birds you particulary want in your yard to provide free pest control services. At the time I am writing this we may be done with freezing temperatures during the day but we may still have some below freezing temperatures at night. You know how our weather is in the St. Louis area – it could be 85 degrees or 25 degrees tomorrow (or both) and no one would be shocked! Suet and fats can melt and turn rancid in warm weather but if you double-render the fat you can place suet outdoors in temperatures over 70 degrees F, according to the book “The All-Season Backyard Birdwatcher” by Marcus H. Schneck.
Before beginning to heat the fat, please read the safety precautions in my article Make Old Wax Candles Into New Candles. Any safety issues that might come up while melting fat are pretty much the same as with wax. I’m not sure if the melting temperatures are the same. Keep a close watch on your fat to make sure it doesn’t overheat. If you’ve ever had an unexpected flare-up from hot bacon grease you know hot fat is something to treat with care!
In my example I used bacon fat and some beef fat trimmings that the butcher at Whole Foods gave to me. I had gone to Whole Foods with the intent of buying some suet but they didn’t have any. Suet is a type of fat that comes from around the kidneys. Just plain beef fat will work too.
I experimented with a couple of different ways of rendering the beef fat. First I chopped it into smaller pieces then I put some of it in a food processor to partially grind. A meat grinder would be better for this but I don’t have one. I put the ground fat in the double boiler to melt down. A double boiler is used to heat things that scorch or burn easily. At home many of us use such a setup to melt things like wax and candy. Place a saucepan on top of the stove and partly fill it with water. Set a glass heat-resistant measuring cup containing the fat in the pan of water and slowly heat the water until the fat melts.
I also experimented with putting some fat pieces into a glass temperature-resistant measuring cup and microwaving the pieces for about a minute to a minute and a half at a time. Either way the fat melted fine and I strained out and discarded the tough pieces and little meat pieces that were left behind and poured the fat into a glass dish to harden.
I let the fat cool until it was hard, then I re-melted it. The hardening and remelting makes it double-rendered and ready for warmer spring temperatures.
After the fat is melted, you can mix things in it that are tasty treats for birds – leftover baked goods, grains, nuts, chopped dried fruits, cereal, dried mealworms, and of course, bird seed. I molded my cakes in cleaned used food containers and popped them out after they were hard. You can buy pre-made suet cakes (at Schnarr’s!) that are made to go into a pre-made metal mesh holder with a hanger. When you make your own suet cakes, you have to work out a way to hang them. I drilled holes through the middles with a long thin knife and threaded twine through the holes to tie the cakes in place outdoors.
The remaining photos were taken at Litzinger Road Ecology Center on the day we made suet cakes. We were all asked to bring in stuff from our pantries to add to the bird food mixture.
At LREC, we had a quantity of donated food containers to use so we made holes in the sides of them to accomodate a hanging string.
You can easily make holes in plastic by heating a nail in a candle flame. Hold the nail in a pair of pliers to keep from burning your hands and be careful around open flames!
We made knots in the strings to keep them from slipping through the hole. Before filling the containers with food mixture, for extra security we pulled the stings in slightly so the fat mixture would harden around the string and help hold it in place.
After filling with food mixture, all we had to do was wait for the fat to harden. Then our suet feeders were ready to hang outdoors!