Bird Watcher's General Store

No One's Coming to the Suet - 11/03/06


Dear Bird Folks,

I recently purchased some suet for the woodpeckers at my local farmer supply store. I placed the suet in a new wire feeder and hung it amongst my other sunflower seed feeders. Even though birds are readily feeding from the other feeders, I have yet to get a single bird on the suet. Am I doing something wrong or should I just be patient with the new feeder?

- Norma, Western, MA

Yes, yes, yes, Norma,

You said it right. "Be Patient." Do you know how many years I've waited for someone, besides myself, to say those words? In a world of microwave ovens, movies-on-demand, and same-day delivery, the idea of having to be patient for anything is a notion many people aren't willing to accept. Remember Polaroid? A Polaroid camera could give us a nice colored picture in thirty seconds. Thirty seconds?? That's way too long for us. We need our pictures in zero seconds. And so sluggish Polaroid cameras were replaced by digital.

Don't get me wrong, I love all of this hi-tech stuff. As soon as they make a waterproof iPod, it's coming in the shower with me. I hate to be separated from the Monkees any longer than I have to be. But watching birds should be a relaxing hobby. It's something that we do when we need to take a step back from the schedules and quotas. Yet every day I talk with people who are upset because the feeder, that they bought yesterday, isn't getting all the birds that are pictured on the box the feeder came in. If the package has Evening Grosbeaks pictured on it then they had better get Evening Grosbeaks soon or there is going to be litigation.

Before buying a particular feeder, the first thing to do is make sure that you have the birds you are hoping to get in your area. For example, I don't even bother putting out a suet feeder because I know I'm not going to get woodpeckers. Woodpeckers like dead and dying trees. In my glitzy neighborhood, if a tree shows any sign of ill health, a S.W.A.T. team of arborists is dispatched and the tree is removed in an effort to preserve property values.

The proper habitat is more important to birds than anything we can offer them. If you live in a wide open, treeless area, you probably aren't going to get many woodpeckers. Just as people living in the deep woods rarely get bluebirds. For the most part feeders only attract birds that are naturally drawn to your neighborhood to begin with.

The next thing to consider is feeder placement. Feeder birds don't have a great sense of smell. They locate food by sight (or by sound if your feeder happens to be the new iPod feeder that plays Monkees' tunes). Woodpeckers spend much of their lives climbing up and down tree trunks looking for wayward insects. They will have a much better chance of finding your feeder if you attach it to the trunk of an old, rotten tree rather than putting it out in the middle of the yard on a pole.

The last thing I'd like to mention gets back to this patience thing again. Many people find that when they introduce a new feeder, the birds ignore it and continue to use the old scuzzy feeders instead. This is when we get the calls from panic stricken customers who are screaming, "The new feeder is no good. It's not made right. The holes are too small. The holes are too big. The color is bad. The birds hate it. I hate it. Do something about it and do it now." Whoa. Chill out. Perhaps feeder companies should include a free Valium with each new feeder.

Yes, birds will often continue using an old feeder, even after a new feeder has been put out. Birds, like us, are creatures of habit. I'd bet most people sit at the same seat at the dinner table each night. Birds are the same. They go to the feeder that they know provides food and to the feeder that they know is safe. One bad experience with a bug zapper is enough to make them suspicious of anything new for years.

When you put out a new feeder, keep the old feeders out there too, but slowly let them go empty. The birds will land on an old feeder, find out that lunch isn't being served and will then look around for other options. When they finally try the new feeder, and discover that they don't get zapped, they will continue to come even after the old feeders are refilled.

With a little patience, Norma, the birds will soon find your new feeder and you can put the Valium away. But keep it handy. Sooner or later the squirrels are going to find that new feeder and you'll be reaching for it once again.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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