Around this time of year, we start to think about the birds that don't migrate (or maybe they came from colder regions for the winter). We wonder how they survive, although we know they can fend for themselves.
Still, what bird doesn't like a treat or two? Once it gets cold enough, we enjoy making "bird cakes" for our feathered friends, stringing them on ribbon or twine, and hanging them from a branch.
Here's the recipe we used this year:
1 cup natural crunchy peanut butter*
2 cups oats (steel cut or quick-cook)
1 cup bird seed (black-oil sunflower seed is ideal)
1/2 to 1 cup warm water
*you can also use "sun butter" or other seed or nut butters, as long as they are somewhat stiff at room temperature
Melt the nut butter gently over low heat, then place in a large bowl and stir in the dry ingredients. Allow to cool, then slowly add warm water and knead by hand until it forms a very thick "dough." Pat into small shapes or pans. Use the handle of a wooden spoon or a chop stick to make a hole for hanging. Freeze for several hours or overnight. Hang outdoors with string or ribbon. (You can also use cookie cutters if you chill the dough slightly; we pressed the dough into cutters, froze them, then released the cakes by rubbing the cutters with warm water).
About bird cake ingredients:
- Nut and seed butters should be offered mixed with other ingredients such as birdseed or oats to prevent the butter from sticking in the birds' mouths.
- You can use suet or lard along with, or in place of, nut butter. Melt over low heat before adding other ingredients. While it may seem odd to feed birds animal fat, they glean fat from grubs and worms in the wild. However, avoid bacon drippings, which can have impurities.
- Many bird cake recipes call for cornmeal, cracked corn, or raw peanuts. All of these can have traces of aflatoxins (from fungus) that are extremely harmful to birds even in small quantities. If you choose these, make sure they're for human consumption--but it's safer to use cereal oats and birdseed.
- Many birds love sunflower seeds. Black-oil sunflower seeds are preferable to striped sunflower seeds; the latter have tough shells most birds can't crack. Or, use sunflower hearts.
- Before buying commercial bird feed (like we did), consider that it's often full of millet (tiny round seeds) mainly eaten by ground feeding birds that won't perch on a hanging feeder. Another seed-mix 'filler' to avoid is red milo, with reddish seeds slightly larger than millet. Few birds care for red milo, and so this seed is often spilled and wasted at bird feeders.
About bird feeding:
- Serve bird cakes when temps are chilly. At higher temps oils soften and coat chest feathers, a hazard for nesting birds whose eggs then clog with residue. Bird cakes also spoil in warm temperatures.
- To watch birds feeding on your cakes from a picture window, hang the cake closer to the window, 3 ft or less. Picture windows are grave hazards for birds that take off from feeders at full speed, injuring themselves (or worse) when they hit a window. 30 ft is a safe distance if you'd rather have the feeder further away.
- If using a feeder or perch, clean it with hot water and soap to prevent the spread of disease.
- Urban families should sweep under feeders and consider taking cakes in overnight to avoid providing food for rats.
Last, as a family, we participate (for a fee) in Project Feeder Watch, of which the Great Backyard Bird Hunt is a free part. PFW lasts from November through the first week of April; if you live in North America, it's a great activity to do with your kids. Here's a link to their free feederwatch kids' resources.