It is super sad for me to read home-made suet recipes because nearly all of them are dangerous for birds, even deadly.
Reality is fats can get on birds' feathers and harm their ability to stay dry and warm. This is deadly in the winter, and even summer. And it's why feeding soft or liquid fats, or fats that melt easily at low temperatures is very unsafe. Greasy birds are dead birds, as lack of waterproofing, allows water to contact their skin, which then makes them cold - cold birds spend more time preening than eating. Once a bird is very cold, preening is most of what they will do. More preening, less eating = starvation.
Avian rehabilitators must use a high solvent soap to remove fats from feathers. And actually, in terms of removal, it is often harder to remove suet than petroleum products. However, sadly, we do not get the chance to catch most of these dirty birds.
Melt points matter! All but true suet and peanut butter have low melt points - veg oils, subcutaneous fats, bacon drippings, many fats misnamed as 'lard' or even 'suet' all melt at low temps. Making soft fats hard with ingredients (that birds don't really need like flour and corn) is not a solution. Note, even in winter fats can melt from the heat of the sun on them.
Beef FAT is not suet! This should not be used for feeding birds. Rendered beef fat is not "suet" -its low melt point makes it risky for birds' feathering and waterproofing. (Regions with zero degree weather, 24 hours a day, this can work, like the Arctic in winter). True suet is the fat around the loin of a cow. It is nearly dry, thus it crumbles when you handle it. Bacon grease, drippings from beef cooking, whatever is NOT suet, and is deadly to birds.
Vegetable oils: Coconut and palm are the only plant fats that are hard at room temperature. Their melting points are 75-77 degrees. This is way too low for a "suet" type of bird food. Also, birds likely do not have the digestive enzymes to digest these oils.
Peanut butter - Yes, it's safe, when mixed with something else. Melting point is high, 104. Just make sure that it has NO ADDED OILS - no other vegetable oils and no sugars. The best kind is fresh ground kind - where you pour the peanuts into a machine and you get fresh peanut butter, no salts, no oils, no sugar. Added to suet, this makes a "no melt" sort of suet. Peanut butter melts at 104 degrees, so adding it to the suet gives you a solid, low melt, hard 'suet' that is safer to feed birds (whom are landing close to these fats).
Test: pinch your suet between two fingers. Does it squish? Toss it and go for a no melt beef suet that has no or very little veg oil in it.
Test 2: handle the suet - If it crumbles and is nearly dry - it's suet. Recipes that require a lot of dry ingredients are likely using a soft fat that they have to try to hold together. Melting point 95 degrees - this is why it's safe to feed.
Cages only please. Never feed suet in a way that allows the bird to land on the fats. They will preen these fats right into their feathers. Log feeders work if they have a perch only - so drill a hole and put in a chopstick or small dowel. The squirrel proof one that has the suet inside and the cage out away from the suet so little birds can hop around and not on suet. If it's hard suet, it will fall as crumbles.
NEVER EVER EVER SPREAD FATS OR OILS ON TREEs!!! I cannot express how dangerous this is for birds. And you will NOT notice their demise, unless you are banding and keeping watch for months. What I am saying here is common sense, not that hard to reflect on why this is bad.
Keep feeders clean by washing in very hot water and soap like Dawn, regularly.
Time of Year
Fall, winter, spring are main suet feeding times. Late summer too before fall migration. Never over 80 degrees. Not in the sun, shade only, even winter as sun anytime of year directly on suet will soften it. (Partial sun is ok, just monitor to make sure it's not softening). Summer - make sure it does not go rancid! Change out frequently! (by putting in garbage).
Recipe for Favorite suet: No Melt peanut butter & suet. Ground oatmeal, corn flour or finely ground, quick oats with its flour, rendered suet. Add peanut butter if you want a no melt. You can add seeds, nuts, and fruit.
In sum YES, feed suet...safe, beef suet with good ingredients like seeds, some no melt with peanut butter, Test your suets...they should be hard. Have fun feeding. (Picture is from my friend Jane Tibbetts, songbird photographer extraordinaire! She's made a safe, very neat log feeder for the suet. Thanks Jane!
Native Bird Care is getting a lot of calls about sick and dying birds at feeders this winter. These birds are mainly Pine Siskins, but also Evening Grosbeaks, Goldfinches, and other finch family birds. Sadly, they are suffering from Salmonella, which is a highly contagious bacterial infection.
If you are seeing sick and dead birds, you absolutely should take the feeders down. This is imperative for stopping disease spread. Often two weeks is enough to disperse a flock of birds with sickly members. After the rest of the flock leaves, you might find the sick one staying on in a desperate attempt to survive, and lacking the energy to fly on with the flock. You may be able to catch this bird, and if so, bring to rescue.
In general, how we feed our yard birds can either make disease spread worse or slow it down and prevent it. You play a huge role in protecting your birds and creating a safe backyard habitat. Please explore the instructions below for specific details on how to help your birds.
*** If you have a question, please contact us directly from the website.
Why Pine Siskins & Finches?
Pine Siskins are particularly susceptible to Salmonella infection. These birds are experiencing what is called an "irruption" year, which is when an unusually large number of a species appear in areas further outside of their range. We have local Pine Siskins throughout the Northwest, however, these birds are most common across Canada, residing in the expansive boreal forests. Unfortunately, a shortage of conifer seeds has forced thousands of these birds to head south. Notably, people from across the country and even Florida are seeing these sweet little birds. (Audubon has a nice article on this irruption).
You might wonder why the Pine Siskins are ill, while the Chickadees and Nuthatches are seemingly fine. For some reason, unknown at this time, the finch family of birds seems to be more susceptible to both Salmonella and Conjunctivitis. This family includes Pine Siskin, House Finch, Evening Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, and the Goldfinches. But, any bird or mammal (including humans) can acquire this infection. Raptors and Owls that prey on sick birds can also contract the disease.
Notably, this disease spread from agricultural poultry farms, and more birds who congregate near agricultural animals carry the infection. A few birds will carry the bacteria in their guts, without visible external symptoms. These asymptomatic carriers will shed the bacteria in their feces; if this fecal matter contaminates foods, like at a feeder, then the disease will spread.
Some birds are able to overcome the disease though and gain enough immunity to survive. This is usually the larger birds. Dr. Wesley Hochachka of Cornell Lab of Ornithology speculates that, "many other species are innately more able to fend off Salmonella infections," and develop immunity. However, given the death rate, he notes that it doesn't appear that this is happening for the Pine Siskin and Redpoll.
How & What Diseases are Spread?
Birds share disease wherever they congregate and avian scientists confirm that bird feeders are a location in which disease can be passed to other birds (Adelman et al. 2015; Dhondt et al. 2007; Galbraith et al. 2017; Hernandez et al. 2012, Lawson et al. 2018). But any location in which birds hang together, such as a communal roost, are places for infections to spread.
Salmonella is just one of several pathogens that can be spread at the bird buffet. Others are: conjunctivitis, avian pox, aspergillosis, trichomoniasis, and coccidia, along with internal parasites, mites, and feather lice. However, not ALL birds carry these pathogens (just like not all people carry the cold virus). In fact, studies show that only a few birds actually carry the Salmonella bacteria.
Salmonella is highly contagious, and one reason it is is the length of time it can survive in the environment (say a bird feeder). The FDA reports that Salmonella can, "survive several weeks in dry environments and several months in wet environments." In contrast, Conjunctivitis survives from "hours to a few days" according to Dr. Hochachka. The good news is that we can play a key role in reducing the number of pathogens that might be congregating at our feeders simply by regularly cleaning them.
The higher the stress-load of an animal, the higher their risk of illness. Stress makes animals more susceptible to pathogens of all kinds, from worms to disease. Birds who are not finding enough food or who are under climatic stress as in severe storms, are under enormous stress. This is why some of the Pine Siskins act aggressively at the feeder. They literally are fighting for their lives.
The bacteria spreads by fecal matter or saliva. So, if birds are feeding where they poop, this is a huge problem. Any feeder in which a bird is able to sit in their food is a potential source for infection. Flat feeders and those with large seed catchers are primary culprits. Feeders that can collect poop, also collect the bacteria, increasing birds' exposure. A bird that can sit with their little pooper in the tray, is a bird that is pooping where they are eating. (You can trim off seed catchers on mesh feeders, just do not leave a sharp edge!).
Salmonella causes lesions and inflammation throughout the digestive track and esophagus. It can enter the bloodstream and affect the organs and the brain. Once in the brain it causes cognitive impairment, which is why sick birds act "tame" and you can get so close to them. Birds ultimately die from starvation, being unable to absorb the nutrients they need, or organ failure.
Our role in helping these birds is simple. We can create an environment in which the birds have a safe environment to feed.
Here are some helpful tips for keeping our birds healthy and happy!
Should I take my feeder down?
Wildlife vets and disease specialists recommend taking the feeders down during severe outbreaks, such as the one going on now across the PNW and the country.
Leaving the feeder up when you have sick and dying birds contributes to the outbreak. It is imperative that feeders come down when there are sickly birds present.
In general, not following strict cleaning practices and using feeders that are known to cause disease spread, will cause more birds to become ill and die.
Some argue that removing feeders simply sends the birds to other nearby feeders. This may be true. However, some birds may choose to disperse to natural spaces as well. Increased competition for the feeder can also be high enough to force the birds to move on.
Removing feeders may result in sick birds staying nearby as they may lack the energy to fly very far. This will keep them from exposing another feeder. These birds will likely perish. Sickly Pine Siskins rarely if ever survive Salmonella, even in care. (Always pick up and dispose of dead birds in the trash, do not leave the body out to continue to contaminate the environment).
Many people will chose to leave their feeders up thinking that the feeder is doing more good than harm. With Conjunctivitis, some scientists make an argument for feeding ill birds because they are often starving and some can develop immunity. However, Pine Siskins do not generally survive and leaving the feeder up allows them to continue to sit in a feeder. The larger birds may in fact develop immunity. We need more studies on the prevalence and spread of salmonella.
It is important to remember that our feeders are supplementary foods for most of our birds, at least during much of the year. During severe winter storms, studies do show that survival improves with feeding. However, it is not beneficial to allow birds to spread diseases.
Best Practices Feeder Tips:
How to Clean a Feeder:
Clean up all debris from under feeders
Salmonella Symptoms: What do I look for?
What do we do if we find a sick or dead bird?
Dead birds: use gloves to handle either sick or dead birds. Do not bury or leave dead birds out. Burying spreads the disease into the soil. Put dead birds into a plastic bag and dispose into trash.
Living, but sick birds: Take a hand towel and simply pick up the bird. You can also use a butterfly net. Use gloves or a towel. Place into a small box or paper bag, on paper towels. Never leave sick birds in your yard, not only are they spreading the disease, but they are suffering as well. Find a local songbird rehabilitator or call your local Fish and Wildlife agency.
Can humans or pets get Salmonella?
Yes, but it is not likely. The amounts in bird feces are tiny, and we are large. It would take a lot of feces or we would have to have a very weak immune system. Dogs and cats fend off salmonella all the time, but if they eat a sick or dead bird then they can possibly get ill. If you have outside cats, you should not feed birds anyway, but for sure you shouldn't feed when there is a disease spreading.
Chickens carry their own particular subspecies of salmonella. It too can be spread to wild birds. In fact, agricultural animal waste is one source of salmonella infection for wild birds, particularly those associated with those animals (starlings and house sparrows). Chickens and wild birds can contract each other's subspecies of the infection, but it is less common that we know of. Chickens come with a host of other infectious diseases that affect our wild birds. Always ensure that wild birds cannot get into the chickens enclosures.
Please use common sense when handling sick or dead birds, and when cleaning your feeders and baths. Gloves are mandatory.
If you would like citations for the research mentioned, email us at email@example.com
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