Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Woodpeckers Are Attracted to Suet
October 30, 2010
by Steve Grinley

     With colder weather approaching, now is a good time to add suet to your birds diet if you haven’t already done so. Suet, or beef fat, helps birds build up their body fat for the cold winter months.

     A simple mesh bag will hold beef suet that you can buy from a butcher (they used to give it away.) The birds will cling to the mesh bag and pull out pieces of the suet. Raw beef suet does get rancid in short time but you can render it to make it last. Melt it down and add peanut butter, bird seed, corn meal, raisins or nuts. There are recipe books for such mixtures, but it is fun to experiment and try new things.

     A simpler way is to buy commercial suet cakes or bells. These can be placed in mesh bags or suet cages. The vinyl-coated metal cages provide protection against squirrels that would chew right through a mesh bag. Squirrels are usually after the seed or nuts mixed in with the suet and don’t usually bother with pure suet. The same is not true for the neighborhood dogs! You have to keep suet out of their reach as many a suet bag is lost to our canine “friends.” Some suet cakes have hot pepper mixed in with the suet that also deters squirrels but doesn’t bother the birds.

     Suet is a good way to attract woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers and titmice. Unfortunately starlings also like suet and can sometimes dominate a suet feeder. There are “upside-down” suet feeders which permit woodpeckers, chickadees and other light birds to cling underneath and feed, while starlings are too heavy to hang upside-down to feed. There are also cage type suet feeders which let the smaller birds in to feed. Both these feeders will help deter squirrels.

     Logs that are drilled out to accept suet “plugs,” and don’t have perches, will attract the clinging birds and deter larger birds such as the starlings.

     There are several species of woodpeckers that you might attracted with suet. The downy and hairy woodpeckers are the two most common woodpeckers in our area. Both species are nearly identical except in size. The hairy woodpecker is half again as large as the downy at approximately 91/2 inches compared to the downy’s 61/2 inches. Both are black and white on the head, wings and tail and have a white front and a white back. The male of both species has a red patch on the back of the head. The female downy and hairy woodpeckers lack the red patch.

     Together side by side, these birds are easy to distinguish, but alone at the suet they may be a bit difficult to identify. One thing to notice is that the bill of the hairy is much larger – it as long as its head is wide. The downy has a much smaller chisel bill. A definite field mark at close range is the white outer tail feathers of these birds. The hairy’s outer tail feathers are pure white while the downy woodpecker has fine black spots on the white.

     The red-bellied woodpecker is becoming a more frequent visitor to area suet feeders. This southern bird has expanded its range northward into our colder climate. This bird is buffy on the front and has black and white zebra-like striping on the back with a white rump. The male has red on the top of its head and nape (back of its neck), the female is red only on the nape. There is very little red on the belly of the red-bellied woodpecker, so where it got its name is beyond me! Red-bellied woodpeckers are now year around residents all over the North Shore and into New Hampshire.

     The red-headed woodpecker, which lives up to its name with its ALL red head, is less common in our area, but occasionally comes to suet. It is one of our more striking woodpeckers with large white patches against jet black wings, offset by its bright red head. An immature red-headed woodpecker has a gray head instead of a red head. These woodpeckers are uncommon in our area, but keep your eye out for one!

     And if you live near a large stand of woods, you may be lucky enough to have a pileated woodpecker visit. This spectacular crow-sized woodpecker also has large white patches on its black wings and sports a large crest of crimson red on the head. The inspiration for Woody Woodpecker, no doubt. I have a couple of pictures on my bulletin board that a customer took of pileated woodpeckers in her backyard in Byfield.

     Whichever birds show up at your feeders this winter, you can be sure that the woodpeckers are one family to surely appreciate suet.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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