For many people, the holidays are ‘the season’ for delicious, fattening goodies. We aren’t alone in this habit. As cooler temperatures approach, many warm-blooded creatures pack on the pounds. For wildlife, this is often critical for surviving the colder winter months.
For birds, it means having access to nutrient-rich, fat-laden nuts, seeds, and even straight-up animal fat (like in suet). Consider making these easy to assemble pine cone suet feeders to help your bird-neighbors survive the winter. Unlike us, they actually need that extra helping of fat this time of year!
On your next walk in the woods, look for fallen pine cones. The late fall and early winter is a great time to find pine cones in the woods. If you cannot locate pine cones, you can also make suet cakes (see below), which uses the same basic ingredients.
Securely attach wire or sturdy string to the top of the pine cone. Thin, “floral wire” is available at local craft stores. However, any thin wire around your home will suffice. Yarn can be effective, but it has a tendency to thread and break more easily when blown around, so your pine cone feeder may not be as sturdy once it’s hung outside.
At your local store, in the meat section, find a chunk of tallow (beef or pork fat). How much you need will depend on how many feeders you are making. One pound of tallow will yield about six small/medium sized pine cone feeders. Tallow is usually very inexpensive and one of the best forms of fats to feed to birds–it’s firmer than peanut butter (once it cools) and is a better option than vegetable shortening, which is comprised of hydrogenated oils. If you do not see tallow amongst the cut meats, ask the butcher if they have tallow chunks in the back.
Slowly melt the tallow in a pan on low heat, you want the fat to melt so you can work with it. Do not overheat or cook it.
In a large bowl or pyrex pan, pour in a thick layer of mixed birdseed, preferably one that your birds are used to feeding on.
Once the tallow is melted, turn it off and let it start to cool. Wait a few minutes until the tallow starts to become more of a glue like texture–not liquid and not solid. Then, pick up your pine cone by the wire and drag it through the fat. Be careful, the tallow is still hot. Move the pine cone around so it is thoroughly coated, and some of the oil gets down into the pine cone scales.
Take the tallow-covered pine cone and do your best to submerge it in the bird seed. Sometimes it helps to pick-up seeds and sprinkle them over the pine cone, or push the seeds into the sticky crevices. Do this before the tallow hardens. Before taking the pine cone out of the seed pan, lightly shake or spin it to release loose seeds. If you are doing multiple pine cone feeders, you may have to reheat the tallow a couple of times to keep the softer texture.
When you are done covering the pine cone with seeds, place it on a piece of wax paper. If you are going to wrap up the feeder as a gift, wax paper is best to use as your first layer, so the seed-covered pine cone does not stick to your wrapping materials.
If you are going to put the feeder outside right away, let it firm-up on the wax paper, then transfer it to a tree you frequently see birds feeding in. If you have a bird feeder established, hanging the pine cone near your feeder will help ensure the birds find it quickly.
Suet Cakes or Molds
If you are unable to access pine cones, feel free to follow the steps above and instead of putting the melted tallow on your pine cone, transfer it to a bowl of mixed bird seed. Thoroughly mix the seeds and tallow. Then, transfer the concoction into a deep pan or a molding of your choice. Spread it out so it completely covers the bottom of the container, as though it were cake batter.
Once it is hardened, you can either cut the suet up into cakes that will fit a standard suet cage or pop the seed-suet out of the molding. Hang suet cakes in a suet cage near a place where the birds feed. Or, gift wrap them (first in wax paper) for a wildlife-loving gardener.