THERE WAS SNOW ON THE GROUND this morning, marking the time to begin my winter regime of bird feeding. In winter and spring, I make an effort to be more consistent about keeping the feeders full, for reasons explained recently in this post. Other than that, the one big addition to my usual routine is a giant jar of the cheapest peanut butter I can find.
Years ago, before meat came in packages from the grocery store, butchers often gave away bits of cow carcass that their human customers did not want to eat. This is how many dogs got their bones; these days, it is almost impossible to get a dog bone from from a butcher, even if you offer to pay for it.
The butcher was also a source for a winter bird food known as suet. Suet is a thick piece of nearly pure white fat that is found behind a cow or steer's kidneys. Hung outside, often in an old onion bag, it would provide high-calorie fuel for small birds during the depths of winter. Suet functions as a substitute for insects, which are also quite high in fat, during a time of year when insects are very difficult to find.
Today it is almost as difficult to get suet from a butcher as it is to get a good dog bone. However, you can purchase suet in stores; it usually comes in the form of a square cake that fits into a "suet holder" that you can also purchase.
I spent a lot of money on commercially prepared suet over the years, believing that this was the ideal way to feed winter birds. But eventually I realized that the custom of feeding suet arose because suet used to be cheap, not because suet is necessarily the ideal food. As a matter of fact, almost any high-fat food will work just as well. And birds actually seem to prefer peanut butter. When you buy it in the giant jars in the bulk foods section of the grocery store, peanut butter is also also quite a lot cheaper than commercial suet.
After discovering peanut butter, I went through several years in which I tried combining it with other things, such as corn meal or dried fruit. Eventually I realized that this is unnecessary and wasteful, so I just started putting out straight peanut butter.
Some people are afraid to give birds straight peanut butter because they've heard that the birds will choke. But I've never seen or uncovered any evidence that this is likely to happen. As far as I know, most authorities now consider this to be an urban legend.
The only concern in offering birds peanut butter or any other high-fat food is that these foods should not be left outside in warm weather. Fats of all types go rancid in heat. This is why I reserve peanut butter for winter feeding.
All of which is to say that today I celebrated the beginning of winter by finding a couple of old, battered suet feeders, a large jar of inexpensive peanut butter that I bought a couple of weeks ago in expectation of this day, and a big spreading knife. I scooped peanut butter out of the jar and into the suet feeders. Within a minute after I had hung up the first one, a chickadee had taken its first bite.
If you don't have some old suet feeders in the garden shed, you can make a peanut butter feeder out of almost anything: a can open at both ends, a piece of scrap lumber as long as it's not treated. Peanut butter sticks to almost anything, after all. Screw an eye-hook into whatever it is, hang it up where the birds will see it, and you have a free feeder. Do not spread peanut butter on a live tree or shrub, however; squirrels will chew through the bark as they try to get at the last of the peanut butter.
In addition to offering peanut butter to the birds, I will also continue to offer the same foods I put out during the rest of the year: black oil sunflower seeds in the hanging feeders and, thrown daily onto the driveway, cracked corn and/or white millet and/or the cheapest seed mix I can find, which is likely to be mostly white millet. (More about choosing seeds for birds can be found in this post.) This combination keeps a wide array of birds (chickadees, nuthatches, doves, juncos, various sparrows, and various finches, to name a few) very happy during the winter. The peanut butter may even attract woodpeckers and other birds that ordinarily would eat mostly insects.