With darkness at its longest, and that nip back in the air, it's time to feed the birds.
Deborah L. Martin, in her new book, Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success (Rodale, $22.99), suggests you look no further than your kitchen shelves to feed those flocks. She shares recipes and plain old bird sense, most especially in a delicious chapter titled "Kitchen Castoffs and Home Cooking."
"I'm raiding the fridge and the pantry all the time to augment what I feed my birds," said Martin, who counts seven feeders in her nearly 1-acre yard near Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania. Whether it's the fruit and vegetable seeds she scoops, rinses and keeps in a cup on her cutting board, or the suet-and-cracker-crumb concoctions she routinely mixes for her birds, Martin barely wastes a scrap that could fuel her hungry visitors.
"Birds have such high metabolism, they need so much energy just to stay warm through the winter, or if they're migrating hundreds or thousands of miles," she says. "They can afford way more empty calories than we can." She ticks through a list of morsels — seeds from any fruit, eggshells, scraps of meat and fat, even grease from frying bacon — that bring on the birds.
Indeed, says ornithologist David Bonter, assistant director of citizen science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., who endorses Martin's thrifty ways. Except for dairy foods, which birds can't digest, or salty, processed foods, he wholly endorses feeding your birds straight from the fridge and pantry.
Anyone hungry for a bacon-grease-and-stale-cornflake glop, smeared on a log?
Basic budget suet
It doesn't get much cheaper than this. And the birds, who burn calories the way we wish we did, will gobble it pretty much the way we like to hit the holiday cookie tins.
You'll need: About 11⁄3 cups peanut butter, 1½ cups lard, 1 large loaf of white bread
What to do: Melt peanut butter and lard in a large, microwave-safe bowl in the microwave. Start with one minute on high, then stir and continue microwaving in 30-second increments until completely melted. Meanwhile, tear bread into small bits. Once the PB&L is melted, stir in bread. Store in refrigerator to make it firmer, or in freezer to harden. Serve crumbled in a tray or cut into cakes to fit your feeder.
Mix it up: If you want to take it up a notch, skip the bread bits and mix in seeds, dried fruits or whatever crumbs you find in your pantry. Smear inside cookie cutters before freezing, or freeze on baking sheet and cut out with cookie cutters. Thread through a string or yarn, and voila, you have suet cakes to hang on back-yard boughs.
Adapted from Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success
You'll need: Small clay pots (3- to 4-inch diameter with drainage holes), aluminum foil or parchment paper, pliers, wire (8- to 10-inch length), 2 egg whites per cup of birdseed of choice (you'll need about a cup of seed for each bell).
What to do: Line each pot with foil or parchment. Using pliers, shape one end of wire into a closed loop, and bend so loop is at right angle to rest of the wire.
Heat oven to 250 degrees. Then beat the egg whites in a bowl until fluffy but still liquid; add birdseed, stirring until thoroughly coated. Fill each pot, packing firmly. Poke the straight end of wire through seed mix, and thread through drainage hole. Pull until loop end is embedded in the mix. Now, bend other end of wire (the part sticking through the drainage hole) flush against the pot bottom. It might be tippy, but that's OK; set the pot on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake 1 to 1½ hours.
When bells are set, slip out of pots; let cool slightly before peeling away the liner. (Be careful not to touch the wire while it's hot.) Once bell is cooled, use the pliers to bend the wire at the top of each bell into a loop or hook for hanging.