Thursday, December 13, 2007

For the Birds!


Another ice storm! But the birds are still at the bird feeder today. Yesterday, I was going over my kitchen stuff. Everything is running low, but I had a bad can of shortening. The first part was okay, but as I went down through the gan, it got grainy and too stiff to use in cookie dough. Unfortunately I had to throw out two batches of dough before I surrendered and opened a new can of fat.

Under normal circumstances, I would write a nice letter of complaint to the company who made the shortening. This is a really good thing to do, if you suspect you have a defective food product. Most companies willingly provide some sort of refund or replacement. Last year, I had come Hershey's baking chocolate that made everything I used it in turn into a hard lump. Frosting ripped cakes to pieces. Flour wouldn't go into cookies. It was a nightmare and also inconvenient, because usually I was baking for an "occasion" where I couldn't just decide not to bring cake for someone's birthday because I didn't like the icing. To make a long story longer, I wrote a letter to the company and received Hershey's coupons.

I was about to do the same thing for the shortening when I looked out the window and realised we were going to run out of suet cakes. Again! I have a lot of spoiled birds that I even fed through the summer. Right now, they are not fans of the food I bought for them. It has too much cracked corn. I went to the farm co-op and got some other seed, and it also had a lot of cracked corn. when I have money again, I'm going to have to get something with more millet and mix the two seed batches of seed together.

Most of the birds just show up for the suet, anyway. So, I decided I would take my can of shortening and give suet cake making a try. I went to the internet first for some ideas. There are a lot of recipes. You can put fruits and nuts and grains and just about anything into suet cakes. Some of the recipes even called for white flour which I think is a mean trick to play on birds. Just like for people. White flour has a pleasing texture and will fill you up, but there is nothing in it. And a lot of the recipes called for cornmeal, too. I use my cornmeal for people, same as I use my sugar for baking and jelly. I don't feed hummingbirds my sugar, and I'm not going to take my cornmeal and feed it to the birds who are complaining right now because their food has too much cracked corn in it.

The one thing I found that just about every suet recipe had in common was a one to one ratio of fat to peanut butter, no matter whether you were using animal or vegetable fat. I usually keep a good supply of on sale store brand peanut butter for cookies and for people who don't like the good, natural stuff. That I was willing to give up for the birds.

I raided the cupboards and found some old currants, some wheat germ (which I have not been using in bread because of the blood type diet I have been trying to keep my mother on) an old, old bag of semolina flour and some quick oats. I also went out the garage and got the bucket with the offensive, too corny bird seed in it.

First, I measured out equal amounts of shortening and peanut butter: about two and a half cups apiece. I melted them in a large stock pot. When it was good and runny, I took it off the heat and I put in about three quarters of a cup of the oatmeal and about a cup and a half of the wheat bran and about two cups of the semolina flour and then threw in the currants. After that was nice and stirred in, I just started adding bird seed until I got like a big, play doughy lump.

The mixture cools and solidified pretty quickly. I had two big rectangular cake pans out. I threw a sheet of waxed paper in the bottom and slapped in a layer of the mix about two inches deep. Then, I covered it with plastic wrap (more waxed paper would work, too) and really packed it in. I did the same for the sedonc cake pan.

Then, I set them out on the porch and let them cool and harden up for a while. When that happened, I cut them into squares with a knife. I put two of the squares into the suet holders on the side of my bird feeder. The rest, I packed in stacks in a plastic bag with the waxed paper and plastic wrap from the pans to separate the layers. I put the whole thing into a sealed storage container. I get those big plastic things they package kitty litter in now from like three different people, and they make great water proof, mouse proof storage. I put the unused cakes out in the garage because I'm not sure how they'll hold up at room temperature.

My birds who had been shunning the feeder all day were back within a couple of hours of the arrival of the new suet cakes. I saw the usual suspects: juncos, sparrows, chickadees, tufted titmouse. We also get quite a few nuthatches, both the regular kind and the smaller rose breasted. The real treat at the birdfeeder is the number of woodpeckers. We probably have so many because of all the evergreen trees. Within an hour or so of hanging the new suet cakes, I was watching downy, hairy, and red throated woodpeckers hopping around on the tree and then taking their turns getting suet.

This surely is a wonderful place to watch birds. There are both hardwood and evergreen stands and hayfields all around the house, so we get an impressive cast of characters from three distinct habitats. On top of that, the pond draws a great variety of really interesting waterfowl. In the summer, I see great blue herons hunting fish around the edge of the pond. A green heron visits sometimes, and a miserable flock of migrating snipes holed up here for a few weeks during the bad cold weather last spring. As for ducks, just in the last month, I've seen wood ducks, mallards, a hooded merganser, and a golden eye on the pond before it iced over.

Just a quick note about suet. I usually don't advocate buying anything! But for suet feeding, really, just go out and buy a wire suet cake holder. Something cobbled up at home or one of those new plastic onion bags are just dangerous for the birds. And hang that suet as high as you can! Bears and critters will be very intersted in it, of course, but the worst problem I ever had with animals and suet was when my bad dogs got the feeder by climbing up and bush and bouncing off a tree trunk to drag the feeder down. They ate the suet and broke up the feeder to the point I had to throw it out. Wild animals might happen by the feeder by accident, but a determined hungry, dog who knows just where it is can do a lot of damage!

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