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Suet Dough: Feed Responsibly!

Use good judgment and do what's best for wild birds.

By Julie Zickefoose

Fat is one of the things I wind up writing about fairly frequently, but not in the helping-get-rid-of-it way that the nonbirding public might expect. Rather, I extol the virtues of fat as a winter bird food, whether in its pure, raw suet form or as an ingredient in homemade bird dough. I first wrote about the charms of homemade bird food in the fall of 2004, when I'd been feeding it for about two years. I got the recipe in 2002 from Carrie Griffis of Port Orchard, Washington, who e-mailed some pictures of herself feeding a wild male pileated woodpecker handfuls of what she called "Peanut Butter Suet Dough." As in right out of her hand, on her deck railing. He brought his fledglings to eat it, too. Wow, this must be some stuff! I thought, so I bought the ingredients, mixed up my first batch, and six years later I'm still whomping up sextupled batches in a huge lobster pot, kneeling on the kitchen floor to stir it because I can't get the torque I need any other way. Bill threatens to buy me an industrial mixer every time he sees me at it.

The spring of 2008 was memorable for its misery across much of the United States. Abnormally cold and wet, the weather seemed like one long, cold, weepy continuation of winter well into May, with nights dipping into the 30s and 40s even as bluebirds were hatching. Very few insects were stirring, and I kept finding earthworms discarded in the bluebird nests I checked, a sure sign that the birds were desperate for protein. I fed suet dough unabated into the third week of May. And two bluebirds in my yard turned up suddenly lame.

First, the male from the front yard nestbox started holding up one foot, balancing awkwardly on the other and catching himself with an outthrust wing when he'd fall. Almost at the same time, the female bluebird from the backyard nestbox started sitting very low, puffed up as if she were in pain, and favoring both feet alternately. Now, this isn't necessarily something that would alarm me had it occurred in just one bird; I'd figure it had pulled a muscle or gotten its toe bent the wrong way.

I decided to photograph the afflicted birds' feet to see if I could blow up the pictures and determine what was going on. So I served up a batch of dough, opened the patio door, and waited quietly with my 300mm telephoto lens. On getting my photos on the screen, I was sickened to see the backyard female bluebird's feet swollen, red, and misshapen. No wonder she was acting as if she were in pain. She was in a great deal of pain, and she had to feed a brood of five young right through it all. And what was she feeding them? Why, suet dough, of course.

Because the afflicted male bluebird held up his foot, hiding it in his belly feathers, I couldn't get a definitive picture, but I noticed that he switched off—sometimes he'd hold up the left leg; sometimes the right. That makes injury unlikely, and points even more directly to a metabolic problem. I began to suspect that their diet was at fault. When a pet bird turns up with a problem—any problem—the first place one goes for answers is its diet. As I thought about it, these garden bluebirds of mine, for all practical purposes, are pets, since they are eating prodigious quantities of an artifical diet. They're living on lard, oats, cornmeal, flour, and peanut butter. That's a long way from what these insectivores, who switch to fruit in winter, were designed to digest.

Upon viewing the bluebird foot photos, I put in a call to my favorite avian veterinarian: Robert Giddings, DVM, Diplomate, Association of Avian Veterinarians, and founder of Kensington Bird and Animal Hospital in Kensington, Connecticut. He was my 22-year-old macaw's first veterinarian, and when I was involved in songbird rehabilitation, he patched up my busted wild birds in return for help around the office. I still turn to him with avian health questions, and he cheerfully helps.

JZ: "Hi, Bob. Can birds get gout?"

Bob: "Oh, yes. It's pretty common in caged birds. There was a pellet made by Pretty Bird that had too much protein and Vitamin D in it, that caused gout in quite a few cockatiels, but any diet that's too rich can cause it, just as it can in humans."

JZ: "AH-HA!"

I described the bluebird's feet to Bob—swollen, inflamed, and obviously painful. He agreed that articular gout was the most likely culprit. Gout is caused by an excess of uric acid in the body, which can be caused by increased intake of foods containing purines, which are metabolized to uric acid in the body. Over time, elevated levels of uric acid will lead to deposits of it in connective tissue around joints. Eventually, the uric acid may form crystals in the joints, leading to acute pain and inflammation. Lard has a lot of purines, it turns out.

In pet birds, gout is treated with alepurinol and colchicine, both antipurine medications, as well as pain medications. In wild birds, the only possible course would be to remove the offending food. Suspecting that diet was the culprit, I had already started cutting down the amount I offered over the last three weeks. Now, I was putting out just enough suet dough on occasional mornings to bring the birds in for a few minutes so I could photograph their sore feet.

Bob: "Surely, these bluebirds are eating other things than this suet dough, right? A wild bird shouldn't overeat any one item when there are all kinds of natural foods out there."

JZ: "You'd have to know bluebirds. They are the ultimate addictive personalities. Offer them mealworms or suet dough, and they'll take the easy out every time, gorging on it to the exclusion of anything else. That's part of what makes them such fun to feed."

Bob said that I should see a clearing of symptoms as time passed and the bluebirds resumed taking a natural diet. Over the ensuing months, I photographed bluebird feet at every opportunity. With my telephoto lens, it's almost as good as having the bird in the hand. By the third week of June, the male bluebird from the front yard was standing strongly on both feet, showing just a little residual swelling in the pad of his right foot. And the backyard female bluebird was standing up tall on both feet, and the inflammation was gone, along with the worst of the swelling. She was no longer sitting low and puffed up, and she was building a nest for her second clutch of eggs.

As I write, it's late March 2009. I've followed the female bluebird through the 2008 nesting season (she and her mate fledged nine young from two nesting attempts). I withheld suet dough from mid-May until December 2008, when it started getting very cold. January 2009 was a real bear, with night after night in the single digits and a constant snow cover. I've been glad to have something to offer the six bluebirds who stare me down every morning, but I continue to monitor their feet through my virtual telephoto examination. The gouty female is among them, and so far she shows no sign of relapse.

My hunch is that suet dough, when fed in cold weather, is an acceptable food for wild birds. The problems start when it's fed into spring. Some might take me to task for feeding it at all once I suspected it might cause gout in bluebirds. You'd have to see the happy parade of cardinals, juncos, field sparrows, eastern towhees, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, Carolina wrens, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, and yes, eastern bluebirds to understand why my addiction to the stuff is every bit as strong as theirs.

Here's the kernel of the issue. It's fun to feed birds, and it's easy to reach the point where we feel our feeding is essential to their survival. It sneaks up on us slowly, and before you know it, we're putting out suet dough before we even make the day's first cup of tea or coffee. That's fine in winter when the birds might actually need a handout. It's not good at all in spring and summer.

Every summer, I field phone calls from people who are addicted to feeding mealworms to bluebirds. Summer vacation rolls around and they panic, and call me to ask what they should do about their bluebirds. Surely they'll starve without me! Should I get a neighbor to keep feeding them? What's wrong with this picture? It's the conceit that we are indispensable to wild birds; that our artificial foods (and yes, mealworms, fed to the exclusion of anything else, are an artificial food) are keeping them alive.

While I'm at it: Mass quantities of mealworms are just as bad for bluebirds as is suet dough. They're deficient in phosphorus, too high in protein and fat, and they are a bad mix with the bluebird's addictive personality. The bluebirds will tell you they're starving without them. Don't believe it. It's a scam. Bluebirds survive beautifully on crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, caterpillars, and fruit, and too much of any one thing does them more harm than good. A superabundance of artificial food can cause them to attempt to raise too many broods in a single season (two is normal in most latitudes; more than three is too many). Breeding too often in a single season can adversely affect their health and profoundly disrupt their normal molting schedule.

Whether you're feeding mealworms or suet dough, feed wisely. Feed it to the birds in ice storms; when snow covers the ground; when they truly are having trouble finding food. Give it to them when it rains for a week in June and goes down to the 40s at night. But don't give it to them in the warmth of spring and summer when natural food is abundant—when the grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, and caterpillars, bursting with nutrients and live enzymes and amino acids, are everywhere to be found.

You wouldn't feed your kids candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and expect them to thrive. Make no mistake: they'd be happy to have it, and they'd gobble it down and beg for more, but kids don't know what's bad for them. Neither, apparently, do wild birds. It's up to us to have the good judgment to do what's best for them.

Writer and nature artist Julie Zickefoose blogs at juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.