Suet is a great way to keep birds coming to your backyard all winter. Made of animal fat -- usually the excess fat that butchers trim off of the beef carcass -- suet is extremely high in calories, which convert to energy once digested by birds. Calories may be thought of as bad for people, because we have unlimited access to them, but to a bird in the frozen northland, finding food in the winter is all about finding calories -- and eating suet is one of the quickest ways for them to do so.
Although almost all birds will peck at suet, woodpeckers are the most reliable. In fact, suet is by far the best way to attract woodpeckers to your feeding area. Most grocery stores now sell suet in the frozen foods section. If suet is not available at your local grocery store, you should be able to find it at any butcher shop.
There are many ways to use suet. Dr. John Fitzpatrick, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, cuts the suet into slabs and stores it in resealable plastic bags in the freezer so he can easily replenish it in an outdoor cage. Another way to use the suet is to roll it into a ball, add seeds, and tie twine around it. Or you can just place the ball of suet into an onion bag and hang it.
Another great idea if you don't want to handle suet is to take a pinecone and add peanut butter to it, roll it in seeds, and hang it. Birds love peanut butter for the same reason people do: It's incredibly nutritious, supplying both protein and fat, plus it tastes good. Lots of birds love eating peanuts, and they can detect peanut butter on your feeder after one taste. Most birds cannot smell as well as humans can, but they have very sensitive taste and can tell after one try whether they like something.
Special thanks to Dr. John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for providing this information, along with information on the best seed and shrubs for Winter Bird Feeding. Special thanks to DK Publishing and Wild Birds Unlimited for giving copies of the "Audubon Backyard Birdwatch" and a gift bag, respectively, to our studio audience.