Feb 21, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2017

Too Much Suet Dough?

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.
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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!



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 had a pair nesting for the first time this year at our farmstead in South Dakota. Boxes put out for Bluebirds which didn't come, but these were a very pleasant consolation.
    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • Hahaha, I love the ending remark "that area will have already been well -fertilized!"I've noticed that there are more cheep cheeps right after I clean the bird feeder compared to how many there are right before it was cleaned...so cheep cheeps do like and appreciate a well maintained feeder and they are worth the effort. : )
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • The storm saying seems true so far. We had as party at our bird feeder right before our last storm... 6 at once but different cheeps cheeps would come and go so there were more than 6 for sure..and squirrels eating with the birds
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 13 Jul 2018
  • I know and do clean my feeders both for seed and for hummingbird liquid. I have a vase full of different size brushes that are only for this purpose. I have friends however who NEVER clean their feeders or bird baths, and it’s gross! I am ringing this article and will have to give out to the few offenders I know. I can’t imagine looking at such mess and not cleaning it, but not everyone thinks resale. Part of responsible bird watching/loving is to make the time and take the effort to do this.
    by Carol, Tue, 10 Jul 2018