(This column has been edited from the original published version to reflect a correction in the suet recipe.)
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, a pileated woodpecker made my day. For the first time in more than 20 years, I saw one of these crow-sized hammerheads at my suet feeder. It returned several times over a 30-minute span.
I can’t explain why I had never seen one at the feeders before. They’re common in the woods around my house; I see then almost every day. Maybe I just missed them when they visited the feeders in the past.
I credit Martha Sargent’s home-made suet recipe that she shared with me years ago. I’ve printed it many times, and every fall I get requests to reprint it from readers who have mislaid it.
Martha lives in Alabama, and her recipe is an all-season blend. It doesn’t melt even on hot summer days. Most important, though, birds love it. Chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and all the woodpeckers appreciate this fatty, high energy food.
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest and most common woodpeckers in North America. Recognize this friendly, black-and-white species by its completely white back. Only the larger hairy woodpecker (nine inches vs. seven inches in length), which inhabits deeper woodlands, share this diagnostic feature.
Hairies also have longer, heavier bills than downies. The sex of both species can be determined by a patch of red on the nape. Males have it; females do not.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are the other common species that frequents feeders. They have narrow black and white bars across the back, a white rump, white wing patches in flight, and red on the head.
The entire top of the male s head is red, from the base of the bill to the base of the neck. Females only have a red nape. And despite the name, the belly is only tinged with an anemic rosy wash. Don’t expect a bright red belly.
Compared to the more common downy woodpecker, red-bellies are chunkier and about ten inches long. And like most woodpeckers, they bounce through the air in an easy undulating flight.
The woodpecker suet recipe is simple. I call it Martha Sargent’s no-melt peanut butter suet. The ingredients are one cup crunchy peanut butter (use a cheap generic type), two cups of quick cook oats, two cups of cornmeal, one cup of lard (available in bulk in most grocery stores), one cup of white flour, and 1/3 cup sugar.
Melt and blend the lard and peanut butter in a large pan over low heat, and then stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour into a flat container about 1 inch thick. Place in the freezer about an hour, then cut blocks sized to fit your suet basket. Place a piece of wax paper between the blocks, then stack, and store in the freezer. It keeps for months. For more suet, just double or triple the recipe. And to make the recipe even more irresistible, add a handful of sunflower chips, peanuts, and/or raisins.
Plastic-covered wire suet baskets are inexpensive and easy to fill when the suet is gone. You might also get some large pine cones at a craft shop, and while the suet mix is still warm, roll the cones in the mix. Sprinkle some sunflower seeds on the still warm cones and hang them from a tree branch with monofilament fishing line.
A small log also can be transformed into a suet feeder. Take an 18- to 24-inch log and drill a series of inch-and-a-half holes about an inch deep. Then pack these holes with suet and hang from a screw eye. Attach a swivel so the log can spin and prevent birds from hiding on the back side.
Woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches have strong clinging feet, so perches are unnecessary.
A more sophisticated suet feeder is a suet tree. It s simply an untreated, eight-foot 4×4 post. Sink it into a hole about 30 inches deep, or if the ground is too difficult to excavate, strap it to a tree with electrical wire. Starting at the top, drill a series of inch-and-a-half holes about an inch deep along two adjacent sides of the post.
Leave about a foot between each hole. Position the post so the sides with suet holes can be seen from the house.
Then fill the holes with suet, sit back, and enjoy the show.