Patrick Durkin: Hanging suet upside down is for the birds
A fellow bird-feeding geek sent a tip last week for discouraging grackles, starlings, bluejays, redwing blackbirds and other gluttonous birds from devouring suet cakes as fast as you can buy them.
He wrote: “Try hanging your suet bricks from a branch or pole with shoestrings so they hang flat. First, remove only the top plastic cover. Leave the cake inside its plastic case, and slide it into the suet-holder with its open side facing down. When it’s hung that way, only birds that can feed upside down can peck the suet. You’ll restrict your suet to nuthatches, chickadees, flickers and woodpeckers of all types, even an occasional pileated. Some ‘smart’ birds might find ways to get the suet, but they’ll have to work at it.”
I modified his suggestion a bit by sliding my caged suet bricks onto some screws I use as hangers/anchors atop our large feeder, facing the exposed suet down and inward. Sure enough, with the hard-plastic case surrounding the suet on its four edges and top, the grackles and their fledgling hordes took turns poking, pecking and picking in frustration.
Meanwhile, the downy and hairy woodpeckers had no trouble clinging to the wooden feeder’s siding and picking at the suet like miners working a coal vein. Likewise, nuthatches and chickadees ate leisurely while latched upside down onto the wire mesh of the suet cages. They left the jays and blackbirds glowering nearby, as starlings futilely searched for openings in the plastic.
Hmm. Why didn’t I ever think of that on my own? I would have saved some money. Instead of replacing three suet bricks daily, I now replace them every three days. Plus, I take petty pleasure in the other birds’ irritation. Sure, an occasional grackle contorts its neck at just the right angle to get a peck or two of suet, but it looks grueling. Picture nibbling pizza off the backside of your upper arm while leaning over a chair.
Still, it’s more fun watching the woodpeckers. Sometimes a young downy follows a parent to the suet and clings alongside, demanding food. Judging by their occasional pecking, the youngsters seem capable of feeding themselves, but yet the parent dutifully grabs suet chunks and spoon-feeds its whelp as if it’s helpless.
Then again, who am I to judge? I’ve never fed a woodpecker, let alone raised a fledgling. These feedings occurred often enough last week that I called Stan Thomas, professor emeritus at UW-Madison, to learn more about the woodpeckers’ frequent feeder programs and food subsidies for their young.
Thomas said people often see adult birds feeding their fledglings, and assume the youngster is there to learn how to feed itself. “There might be some learning by mimicking the parent, but it’s not so much teaching and learning as it is giving the fledglings a handout to tide them over while they figure it out for themselves,” Thomas said. “If you closely watch young birds at feeders, they’re often awkward in how they get the food. They’ve figured out where the parent is going to feed, but they don’t really know what to do once they’re there.”
Thomas said birds at backyard feeders are “altricial,” meaning they’re born naked, helpless, dependent and confined to their nest. Most birds fit this category. A smaller number of bird species, often waterfowl such as ducks and geese, are “precocial.” That means they’re born with feathers and prepared to march, lining up in formation behind adults and following wherever they’re led.
Altricial nestlings like the downy woodpecker usually stay confined to quarters about three weeks before they start flying. Even then young altricial birds seldom stray far from their nests. Thomas said they usually hide or hang around nearby, and call incessantly for their parents to bring food. And the adults relentlessly forage, flying back and forth with food to stuff into the beaks of their growing young.
“Over time, the younger birds, through trial and error, learn to feed themselves,” Thomas said. “Sometimes they’ll start following their parents around, but often they’ll just stay near the nest and let the food come to them.”
They remain a family until the young can feed themselves, which might take until late summer to early fall. At that time, the parents start migrating south, and the young follow when strong enough for the journey.
Dependence can last even longer for birds of prey such as owls, or scavengers like vultures. Thomas said young great-horned owls often call all night for food through spring and summer. That pattern sometimes persists into early fall before the parents lose interest and force their young to fend for themselves as the adults re-enter breeding season.
Thomas cautions people to never assume young birds are orphans, however. “This time of year, a lot of people pick up fledglings, thinking they’ve been abandoned,” he said. “That needs to be dispelled. In most cases, the parent is just off foraging. If you walk away, the fledgling will call for food and the parents will find it. Unless it’s in immediate danger, like in a road, leave it alone. Parents don’t forget where they leave their young.”