This winter I started feeding my bluebirds homemade suet dough. They really love it! But I recently read somewhere that too much suet can actually be bad for birds. Is this true?
—Rosemary F., Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Anytime we offer birds food that is not found naturally growing wild (such as suet dough, suet, mealworms, grape jelly, or sugar water) we have a responsibility to do so in moderation and to watch for any ill effects. Bluebird expert Julie Zickefoose (who also writes for this fine publication, though I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her in person) has written about this very thing. She fed her local bluebirds homemade suet dough throughout a long cold winter, giving them as much as they wanted. They ate it all up. Then she noticed one female with a swollen foot and wondered if there was a connection. Julie consulted an avian veterinarian and sent him photos, and he confirmed that the bluebird was suffering from gout, caused by the high purine content of the lard in the suet dough. Of course Julie stopped feeding the suet dough right away and eventually the swelling resolved.
One spring, Julie decided to offer the bluebirds nesting in her yard all the mealworms they wanted. In response, the bluebird pair in the nest box nearest her house went through a season of super breeding. The bountiful presence of a food source (the mealworms) caused the nearby bluebirds to produce four broods in one summer. A normal summer might yield two or at most three broods. This was an incredible physical strain on the female, as you can imagine. Both male and female failed to molt at the proper time, and their feathers were nearly worn to the vanes by August. Since then, Julie has believed—and frequently recommends to others—that "feeding in moderation" is the most responsible policy. So she offers her special Zick Dough and mealworms only in times of harsh weather, and then just a small handful at a time.
By the way, Rosemary, your name reminds me of one of my favorite things to eat: veggie pizza with rosemary. I skip the cheese because I found out recently that I'm lactose intolerant. Love the rosemary, though!
I have put up nearly a dozen bluebird boxes along my rural road over the past five years. My neighbor is a farmer and he gave me permission to put the boxes on his fence posts. I've seen bluebirds on them and even going in, but I have yet to see any baby bluebirds, despite watching the boxes on a regular basis. I haven't looked inside them because I don’t want to scare them away. Am I doing something wrong?
—Steve F., Portsmouth, Ohio
I had a dog named Steve when I was younger. I think Steve might have run away to join a pack of coyotes who were always following us. But I digress...
I don't want to tell you that you're doing anything wrong, but let's just say you aren't doing things as right as you could be.
The problem is the placement of your nest boxes. In your part of the country (and I've spent a lot of time in southern Ohio—it's beautiful there) there are a lot of predators that will raid an unprotected bluebird box. Rat snakes, raccoons, even chipmunks, will clean out a nest of eggs or nestlings if they can easily access it. And boxes nailed to wooden fence posts are very easy for these climbing predators to access. My guess is that your nesting birds have been thwarted by predators.
I suggest you ask your farmer neighbor to let you put your next boxes on baffled metal poles along his fence row—but not so close that a snake or raccoon could reach the box from the fence posts. Nest boxes mounted on galvanized metal poles with a stovepipe baffle mounted on the pole underneath the box will make it nearly impossible for these nest raiders to find success. While it takes a bit of extra effort, the rewards of protecting your nesting birds are huge. Check out the February 2017 issue of Watching Backyard Birds for instructions on building your own box.
Good luck to you and "your" bluebirds, Steve. Now, excuse me while I go try to find some pizza.