Mar 27, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2017

Ask Birdsquatch: Suet Dough and Bluebird Boxes

Anytime we offer birds food that is not found naturally growing wild, we have a responsibility to do so in moderation.
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Dear Birdsquatch,

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

Dear Rosemary,

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!


Dear Birdsquatch,

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

Dear Steve,

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.



About Birdsquatch

Birdsquatch is WBB's tall, hairy, and slightly stinky columnist. He is a bigfoot who has watched birds all his life. His home range is unknown.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018