My yard is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, registered by the National Wildlife Federation. Among other requirements, I provide food and shelter for native wild bird species all year round because aside from being fun to watch, they are an important insect guard in my vegetable and flower gardens and all around my yard.

In winter I hang feeders everywhere I can. At least one seed feeder is visible from each window in the house as well as thistle, suet feeders, ear corn and water. Not only does it give the birds a safe place to eat, drink and be merry, it gives my cats something to do and it gives my eyes a break while I slave at the computer all day into the night. Suet cakes, or something like them, are an important part of the diet for insect-eating wild birds because it provides them with appropriate protein. Adding goodies like fruits and nuts adds variety, vitamins and minerals to their diet. I like to spoil my avian visitors—and save a little money in the process, plus use materials that would otherwise be composted or discarded.

I make batches of a dozen or so treat cakes for about 50 cents each made from lard instead of the suet the commercial cakes are made from. The goodies I add include fresh or dried apple peelings from pies I’ve made for the holidays, older somewhat tired oranges and other fruits, and the leftovers from making pies and jellies in the summer. Birds LOVE these fruit treats in mid-winter. And when I find peanut butter on sale and stand there trying to decide if my birds would prefer smooth or crunchy, I know I’m really in deep.

Recipe for homemade bird treats

• one pound cake of lard (not shortening because birds need the protein)
• 8 oz. jar of peanut butter (not low fat or reduced sugar)
• one cup of fruit peels or other leftovers, diced
• one cup of regular uncooked oatmeal
• one cup of corn meal
• one cup of bird seed, with more just in case
• several small freezable containers about the size of your suet feeder

  1. In a large bowl, mash the lard and peanut butter together, and one by one add the other ingredients mixing until evenly distributed. If the fruit is fresh or you are using fruit juice, the extra liquid may need to be absorbed with extra oatmeal or corn meal. Mixture should be the consistency of cookie dough.
  2. Press mixture into your containers, and place them in the freezer.
  3. When you are ready to use them, pop them out of the container and place in your suet feeder.
  4. Watch your birds have a party.

You can melt the lard, let it cool a bit and carefully add all the ingredients to it, then let it cool completely before you add it to your containers so they don’t melt. Keep the heat low to avoid a fire and understand that hot lard can cause very serious burns.

Treat cakes made with lard are only good for winter because lard will melt in warmer weather.

Any container that can freeze and will make a cake the size of your suet feeder will work so look through items you already have. If you buy commercial suet cakes, save the containers and use them to make your own, covering them with plastic or foil for the freezer. Since it doesn’t freeze completely solid, you can make it in a loaf pan and score it before you put it in the freezer or slice it when it’s frozen. You can make these with just lard and bird seed and the birds will still love you.

If you don’t have a commercial suet feeder, you can make one out of various materials. A mesh bag from onions or potatoes cut down to size will hold out for at least one winter. You can use chicken wire or a product called “hardware cloth” with a 1/4″ wire mesh. I’ve used various kinds of wire fencing too.

And your cats will have plenty of entertainment. For the birds’ sake—and your kitties’—keep them inside, and make sure this is as close to those birds as they get.

Information about feeding birds abounds on the internet. My favorite resources are: The National Audubon Society’s Audubon at Home website; Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch website, which includes not only bird feeding information but also bird identification information plus you can sign up as a citizen scientist and count the birds at your feeders to help track bird populations; and BirdWatcher’s Digest Magazine online where you can read dozens of articles about feeders and feeds and placement and personal experience. These are just the three I reference most frequently.

After you’ve got your feeders set up, just take an afternoon to sit and observe the birds’ feeding habits. I keep my windows clean so I can photograph and sketch the birds, which is a real trick since they never stand still.