If you’ve had seed feeders out for awhile and want to step up your game with another type of food, or you want to attract woodpeckers to your yard, it’s time for a suet feeder. In this article we will cover the basics about suet such as: what is bird suet, what birds it can attract, and answer some other frequently asked questions about suet.
What is bird suet?
Strictly speaking, the word “suet” refers the hard, white fat found around the kidneys and loins of cattle and sheep (mainly cattle). It is sometimes used in cooking, notably in traditional British pastries and puddings. It can also be rendered into tallow which is used in deep frying, in shortening, or even for making soap.
However when we are talking about bird food, “suet” is a more general term that describes food formed mainly from a solid fat such as beef tallow or sometimes lard (pig fat). It often comes in the shape of a cake or nuggets, and usually contains other ingredients such as nuts, seeds, oats, dried fruits and mealworms.
Why do birds like suet?
The idea of your backyard birds eating animal fat may seem strange, especially if you associate them with eating seeds. But remember, one of the main energy sources found in both seeds and nuts is, fat! Suet is high in both saturated and mono-unsaturated fats. This animal fat is easily metabolized by most birds, and provides a lot of energy. Not only immediate energy, but reserves that can be stored for later. This is hugely important to birds in the winter when food is more scarce and they need to stay warm.
Which birds does suet attract?
Suet is mainly associated with attracting woodpeckers. Woodpeckers really seem to love it. If you are hoping to attract more woodpeckers to your yard, a suet feeder is a must. Species such as Downy woodpeckers, Hairy woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Red-Headed Woodpeckers, and the elusive Pileated Woodpeckers, to name just a few of the most common.
There are also many other species of birds that love suet. Wrens, nuthaches, creepers, tufted titmice, jays, starlings, and even chickadees enjoy suet and will visit suet feeders.
What holds suet together?
Suet can be found in all sorts of shapes. Square cakes, balls, small nuggets or even a creamy spread. What holds suet together and allows it to be shaped is the animal fat. At room temperature, the fat will be fairly solid. When warmed, the fat will begin to melt. So suet can be molded and shaped when warmed, then allowed to firm up at room temperature.
Does bird suet expire or go bad?
Yes. It is important to store suet, while not in use, in a cool and dry place. Keep unused suet in its packaging until use to avoid introduction of impurities. Check packaging for expiration dates or “best if used by” dates. If stored properly, rendered suet can last for a few years. Raw suet should be stored frozen.
How to know when suet is bad
- Sight: If you see anything growing on the suet that looks green or white or fuzzy etc, toss it. Mold and bacteria can both grow on suet.
- Smell: Suet doesn’t have a strong smell on its own, it will mostly smell like its ingredients (peanuts, oats, etc). If you ever smell anything strongly sour or tart, like rotting food, it has probably gone rancid.
- Consistency: Suet should be fairly solid and dry. If you can squeeze it between your fingers or would describe it as mushy, gooey or dripping, get rid of it. This will happen if it has gotten too warm and the fat is beginning to melt, which can quickly lead it to going rancid.
Is moldy suet bad for birds?
Yes! You don’t want mold on ANY kind of bird food, suet or otherwise. Some molds can produce aflatoxin, which is fatal to birds. Avoid moldy suet by making sure you don’t offer it if the temperature becomes too warm (usually over 90 F / 32 C) and the suet becomes soft and squishy. Also avoid letting suet sit in standing/pooling water.
Can suet get wet? Will suet get ruined in the rain?
Rain or snow does not typically harm suet. As you may have noticed while cooking, water and fat do not mix. Since suet is mainly fat, it almost has a built-in “waterproofing” quality and will repel water. If the suet is in a feeder that is open to the air, such as a cage or wire feeder, it will be able to drip/air dry. What you don’t want is suet sitting in standing water. Any bird food that remains in pools of water can go bad. If you have suet nuggets in a dish or balls in a tube feeder, you want to make sure it has stayed dry or discard it if it has been sitting in water.
Is it OK to feed birds suet in the summer? Will suet melt in the sun?
Suet can be offered in the summer, but you should be careful. Raw suet should not be offered in the summer. Suet that has gone through the rendering process however, will hold up better in warm temperatures. Most commercially sold suet has been rendered. Check the packaging for phrases such as “high melt point”, “no-melt”, “melt-resistant” and the ingredient list for “rendered beef fat”. This can usually be safely offered, especially in a shady spot. However if temps are over 90 degrees F, especially for multiple days, even rendered suet may become soft and start to spoil.
It is recommended suet not be offered during the hottest months. Besides, the birds don’t need the pure fat as much during this time of year. They are out hunting insects and will probably be less interested in your suet feeder anyways.
What you don’t want to see is anything dripping from the suet. This means it has melted to the point the fat has become liquid and it will quickly go bad. If this liquid fat gets on the birds feathers it can interfere with their ability to repel water and fly correctly. The Cornell Lab even reports that if it gets on birds belly feathers, then can transport it to their eggs while incubating and the fat can coat the eggs, reducing the eggs ability to aerate properly and suffocate the developing baby inside.
Do birds eat suet in the winter? Can birds eat frozen suet?
Yes. Winter is the best time to offer suet to birds. With food harder to find, and temperatures getting very cold, the high energy fat of suet is like a gold mine. It helps birds get the nutrition and calories they need, and the energy reserves to stay warm. The colder it is, the less you have to worry about your suet going bad. Below freezing? No problem. The birds can still peck off bits of suet and the suet will keep nice and fresh. Cold weather allows you to offer even raw suet without worrying too much about spoilage (as long as it doesn’t get too far above freezing temps).
Types of Suet
Most suet eating birds aren’t going to be terribly picky about which brand you put out. That being said, people do report that their backyard birds seem to have preferences. A brand that does well in one persons yard might not do as well as in someone else’s. As always, it will be trial and error to see what your birds like.
What sets suet cakes apart is often the other ingredients added. Suet can come plain or with added fruits, nuts, seeds and insects. You can even make your own at home, check out our article all about homemade suet.
Plain suet is fat only. This is often recommended if you have trouble with starlings, grackles and squirrels eating your suet. Since it contains no seeds or nuts or flavoring, many birds and squirrels don’t seem very interested. Woodpeckers however will still eat it. So if you want to focus mainly on feeding just woodpeckers and having your cakes last longer, plain might be for you.
Hot Pepper Suet
Hot Pepper Suet contains a hearty dose of hot pepper mixed in. This hot pepper will irritate squirrels who come looking for a snack. If you had a lot of trouble with squirrels eating your suet, this may be part of your solution. The hot pepper doesn’t bother the birds at all. I personally use this often, the birds LOVE IT. Sometimes I have seen squirrels eat it but in my experience they usually don’t hang around too long as the spiciness will eventually bother them.
Mixed Ingredient Suet
Fruit, Seeds, Nuts and Insects: Suet mixed with birds favorite foods is one of the most popular types you will find. These blends will draw the widest variety of suet eating birds. They usually contain ingredients such as corn, oats, millet, peanuts, dried berries, mealworms and sunflower. It’s hard to go wrong with any of these mixes, especially if peanuts are an ingredient. Some of the best rated blends on Amazon are Peanut Delight, Orange Cakes and Mealworm Delight.
You can offer suet to your birds in a variety of ways, here are some of the most common.
Cage feeders are the most popular way to feed suet. They are usually square and made out of wire, allowing the birds to grip the outside of the cage while they peck at the suet inside. A basic cage feeder that holds one suet cake can cost as little as a few dollars, such as this EZ Fill Suet Basket.
If you want something just a little bit “fancier”, you can look for one with a tail rest. Woodpeckers use their tails to help balance themselves on trees when they are pecking, like a kickstand on a bike. Having a tail rest on your suet feeder, like this model by Songbird Essentials, can make it more comfortable for them.
Instead of a square cake, suet can also be offered in small nuggets. Nuggets can be fed from a wire peanut feeder. This can allow more access to smaller birds. You can also add nuggets to any type of dish or platform feeder along with seeds to offer birds more variety. Note: if it gets very hot the suet may make the wire feeder overly sticky. Best for cooler months.
Suet Ball Feeders
Suet balls are the same ingredients as nuggets and cakes, just round. The suet balls can be a little harder to find. Make sure the tube isn’t collecting water or holding moisture. They tend to work best in a cage style feeder like this one.
Window Suet Feeders
If the only place you can feed is from your windows, no problem! You can still offer suet cakes with a window cage feeder like this model from Kettle Moraine. I have owned this myself and it works great. It’s never fallen off on me, and I’ve had a big fat squirrel jumping all over it. I’ve seen Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers use it as well as Wrens, Tufted Titmice and Nuthaches.
Suet can be a great addition to your backyard bird feeding, and can be especially helpful to your birds in the winter. You can also draw in woodpeckers that might be reluctant to use your regular seed feeders.
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.