MARQUETTE - Beef fat might not be your first food item of choice when visiting the grocery store. If you were a downy woodpecker, though, it probably would be at the top of the list, at least during this time of year.
Birds, though, don't have the luxury of pushing a grocery cart in front of an aisle filled with seed, suet and other avian staples. Basically, they're adapted to finding food in the winter, and those that would have a more difficult time - think insectivores - tend to migrate south to warmer climates. A little help, therefore, probably is appreciated. (Besides, watching birds brightens up the snowy landscape, even with the birds' duller winter plumage.)
One winter food desired by many birds is suet, which, according to the All About Birds website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is technically defined as "the hard fat around the kidneys and loins in beef and mutton."
A red-bellied woodpecker feasts on suet, a winter food mainstay for birds. (Photo courtesy Judy Kennamer)
If that doesn't sound delectable to you, keep in mind most kinds of beef fat also are considered suet, and birds relish that fat. After all, it's a high-energy food, especially if it's embellished with delicacies such as peanuts and raisins.
Michael and Deborah Berger, who operate the Wild Birds Unlimited store along Wright Street in Marquette Township, can give a lesson in Suet 2.0.
"Basically, what I see is they eat it all seasons," Deborah said.
However, suet provides instant fuel, which is especially needed in the cold winter months, she noted.
"This time, it's for preservation," Michael said. "They need it to keep their fat resources up."
This is when most songbirds lose up to one-third of their body weight at night, Michael said, meaning they have to plump up during the day.
In the spring, Michael said, birds need suet to beef up for the strenuous act of egg-laying.
"Also, it's a good way to start feeding the chicks," he said.
The young birds too don't have a problem digesting suet, Deborah said.
Wild Birds Unlimited has a suet feeding guide for people just getting started in the suet world. Cold-weather suet stays soft in cooler weather, although if it's used in the summer, it should be kept in the shade or in a suet feeder with a wooden top. Warm-weather suet has a higher melting point, on the other hand.
Chickadees, woodpeckers, pine siskins and blue jays are just a few of the species attracted to suet. However, so are starlings, grackles, crows, ravens and pigeons, according to Michael. They can overrun a feeder, so if woodpeckers, for example, are the desired species, a little engineering in the form of an upside down hanging feeder might be in order.
This feeder is designed to make starlings and other larger birds like crows hang upside down to reach the suet.
"They have a hard time eating in the inverted position," Michael said.
Woodpeckers and chickadees, on the other hand, have no problem with discomfort or swallowing food when upside down, he pointed out.
Deborah said a tail prop feeder is a good choice for attracting woodpeckers because, as the name says, they can prop their tails against the bottom of the feeder and feast on the suet.
Michael noted suet cakes with peanut butter mixes and fruits and berries are the biggest draw for birds because they are filled with specialty items needed by some species. People can get suet from grocery stories but they need to use caution because of the possible undetermined age of the suet and how it's been handled. To solve that problem, Deborah said some people have special arrangements with butchers who take care of the suet especially for them.
Michael said that during the winter, birds have less stress and use less energy if there's a feeder nearby. After all, it's less strenuous for birds to pluck seeds from a feeder than from a pine cone.
In the warmer months, though, it's easier for for birds to get food, although business is slower at the Bergers' store.
"Around here, our slow season is the summer because there's more natural food," Michael said.
Winter - especially in the Upper Peninsula - is a different story, so if residents want to de-stress local birdlife, putting out suet might be a good way to provide high-energy food.
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.