Suet Feeders for woodpeckers and other birds


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: Attracting Insect Eating birds to Suet.

Suet feeders: Many different designs, where to place them. How to keep other creatures from eating the suet.


Over the years in this column I have discussed many ways to feed suet to birds. Readers have told me about their new ideas. The present column summarizes this subject and covers the types of feeders, where to put them and how to keep other creatures from stealing the suet.

Included here is everything that was published in the newspaper today plus additional information for the reader who wishes to learn more about the subject.

Woodpeckers do not usually visit feeders that contain seed alone.
They are primarily insect eating birds and suet is a good substitute for insects. It certainly brings them in. Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches also eat suet.

While birds will eat most any fat that you put out, beef kidney suet is best. It is a firm material, white and hard and easy to handle. Ordinary fat cut from meat will be eaten by some birds, but suet seems to have the greatest appeal.

Where do these birds normally find insects in winter?

A feeder for woodpeckers is most likely to be used if it is placed near where these birds are hunting for insects. In the colder weather, many insects are hidden away in and under the bark of trees. In the summer, many adult insects deposit their eggs in a protected spot in the bark of trees.

In some cases, the egg hatches before the cold weather to form a larva, a grub that eventually surrounds itself in a cocoon-like container called a pupa for the winter. While some adult insects hibernate, most die when the weather turns cold. However, their eggs or pupae are alive, but dormant until spring.

During the winter, birds locate and eat many of the eggs and pupae. The woodpecker goes to a lot of work to dig this food out.

Since woodpeckers search for their food on the surface of tree trunks or in cracks or under the bark, a tree trunk is a good place for the suet feeder.

If there is a dead tree close to the house, put the suet feeder on that. It will probably have more insects than a live tree.

Fig. 1

The simplest arrangement is to nail or wire a piece of one half inch mesh galvanized screening (called hardware cloth) to the trunk of a tree to form a basket as shown in figure 1.

The pieces of suet are stuffed into the basket from the top. The hardware cloth should also be bent in such a way as to taper the container inwards towards the bottom. The piece of suet gets smaller as it is eaten away. Consequently, it drops down to the bottom where the screening is very close to the trunk of the tree due to the tapering. The woodpecker can thus reach every last scrap.

A piece of screening can be wired to cover the top to prevent jays and starlings from taking away large chunks.

Fig. 2

Figure 2 is a drawing of the suet feeder that I have used for many years. It was designed by Robert Meadway of Seneca Falls.

It has a triangular piece of wood as the back which is wired to the tree. The wooden roof is fastened by a hinge at the back. The roof is lifted and the suet dropped into the tapered hardware cloth container.

Cut the triangular back from 1/2 inch stock that is about 9 inches long. Make it about 5 inches wide at the top and 1.5 inches wide at the bottom.

Bend a piece of hardware cloth around the wood as shown and nail a strip of wood on the outside of the screening and into the edge of wood backing. Use enough hardware cloth so that the ends can be bent to overlap in the back. Wire the ends together. This will make it strong enough so that raccoons cannot tear it apart.

Fig. 3
Wire the entire feeder securely to the trunk of a tree with very heavy wire or the raccoons will take it down and carry it off. I generally wire the cover down with a piece of soft wire that I can twist to hold the ends together.

Figure 3 is a photograph of that feeder after 20 years of use. The roof has rotted away and I must rebuild it. A block of wood serves as a temporary cover now to prevent jays and squirrels from quickly removing the suet.

What does one do if there is no handy tree for the suet feeder?

In my yard, there was no tree trunk, live or dead, close enough to the window to get a good view of birds there. So I decided to plant a "dead tree" in the right spot.

Back in the woods, I cut a white cedar which had a trunk that was three to four inches in diameter. I selected a piece about six feet long, left the bark on it and trimmed the branches to make what resembled a roughly hewn fence post.

At first I planned to select a spot and bury the end of the "dead tree" in the ground. However, I was not sure exactly where to locate it and decided to make a moveable "dead tree". With that, I could try it in different places and later, even set the tree aside when mowing the grass.

To this end, I put a half inch diameter steel rod in the bottom end that protruded about 14 inches. The tip of the rod had a tapered point as shown in Figure 4.just below.

Figure 4

Holding the post in position I could apply my weight to the post and push the rod into the earth until the lower end of the post was pressed against the ground.

If the earth is hard, make a hole by pounding another rod into the ground. To remove that rod, grab it with vice-grip pliers and rotate and withdraw it. Now you have a hole in which to put the tapered rod to hold the "dead tree".

Mounting the rod

To mount the rod in the tree, bore a one-half inch diameter hole up into the post about a foot deep. From your hardware get a one-half inch diameter reinforcing rod. You will need at least three feet, but it is not expensive and a piece 5 or 6 feet long will give you extra rod if you need it.

Hammer the rod into the hole in the post so that about 14 inches is left protruding from the bottom of the post.

Next, taper the last 4 inches of the rod, use a grinding wheel to remove the extra metal. Make it taper gradually from a half inch diameter down to a point. This gentle taper will allow you to push the rod into the ground.

Thus the "dead tree" is firmly held in place. To remove it, rotate the post a bit and lift it from the ground.

Our suet feeder is fastened close to the top. The "tree" is placed where we can see it easily. It has served us well for many years.
The feeder at the top end of the "tree" is shown in Figures 2 and 3 above.

If you wish, you can bore some 1 inch diameter holes in this "tree" and stuff them with suet. You can also pack the holes with peanut butter instead of suet. Many of the same birds like that as well.

Raccoons were a problem for a while until I took a piece of 7 inch diameter stove or heating pipe about 2 feet long and hung it on the dead tree about a foot below the feeder as shown. I stuffed it with an old plastic bag to keep smaller animals from climbing up inside the pipe. I have had no trouble with raccoons or squirrels since I mounted that pipe on the pole.

One interesting feature of this suet feeder has come to light somewhat by accident. Apparently when the woodpecker and other birds feed, they drop many tiny bits of suet as they go through the stabbing of the suet and the consumption of the little pieces that they pull off. They waste a great deal.

This suet falls into the stove pipe packed with the plastic bag. When the suet in the feeder is gone the woodpeckers drop down to the packed plastic in the top of the stove pipe and pick up the pieces of suet that have fallen there. I never realized how much they waste with their sloppy eating habits. Perhaps we should mount a tray below the suet to catch those scraps.


Fig. 4
A natural looking feeder can be made from a small log that is about 18 to 20 inches long and three inches in diameter. See Figure 4. Bore a number of 1-inch diameter hole half way through the log. Stuff these with suet. The suet can also be melted and poured into the holes and left to harden. Hang the log from a tree limb or from your feeder. Starlings and jays generally find it difficult to feed from such a log. However, if they do become a problem, the log can be hung horizontally as shown in the illustration and only the holes on the underside are filled.


Some people like to prepare "a suet cake". They put other materials into the melted suet and allow it to harden. These include cornmeal, peanut butter, bread crumbs, nutmeats, raisins, sugar and seeds of various kinds. My personal opinion is that the preparation takes a lot of time and the mixture is no more attractive to the birds than the items offered individually.

The birds that are after suet will not eat the seeds mixed with the suet and so the seeds are wasted. Birds that eat the seed will dig them out and discard the suet. So I put plain suet out and then I present the other items in separate feeders. If you are willing to prepare a "cake", then use the other materials, but omit all the seeds.

Fig. 6
A nice suet feeder which is a bit better than the one shown in Figures 2 and 3 is a box like feeder shown here in Figure 6. This one is about 4 to 5 inches wide and perhaps 9 inches tall. The rood is hinged and it can be lifted to drop in the suet. The sloping hardware cloth front keeps the suet within reach of the birds even when it is almost empty.

If the feeder does not have a metal baffle on the post to stop raccoons, the lid will need to be wired down or otherwise fastened for a raccoon can easily lift the lid to reach the suet.
A Suet Bag
Another simple feeder is a net bag filled with suet and hung up somewhere from a wire across the yard or from a branch.

Fig. 7

Warning: The mesh must be at least three-eighths or ½ inch square. A smaller mesh can sometimes seize onto a birds bill and hold the bird there.