Beyond Your Backyard: Decorate Your Tree for the Birds

Kimberly J. Epp

One of the adaptations that helps all winter birds survive is that their beaks and feet are kept at much lower temperatures than their inner core. You have probably wondered why they don’t freeze their frail-looking little feet when they are perched on those deep-freeze cold days? Their feet are heated with a counter-current heat exchange system in which the arteries run alongside the veins in the bird’s feet and legs. The arterial blood warms the cold returning venous blood. This reduces heat loss and keeps the bird’s feet kept at low temperatures, with heating focused on the important internal organs.

I am always fascinated to see the high number of birds flocking to my feeders on the coldest winter days. As stated, the coldest days are the ones most crucial for the birds to consume more calories to help them survive both the long days and the even longer nights. And as you know, we have now entered into a cold snap.

Common ‘feeder’ birds include chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. Common redpolls may be found sometimes as well, although they are not always ‘common’. Interestingly, they migrate here from areas from the far north and arctic regions. When you hear the high chirping and see large flocks of redpolls in the fall you have a sure sign of the winter to come. An interesting fact on redpolls is that they will actually dig burrows in the snow to huddle together with - and so winters with less snow can be hard on these birds, forcing them to adapt to other places. Redpolls are about the same size as the chickadee and all have a little red cap. The males have rose-colored chests. Watch for them this winter as they may also visit your feeders if you offer protein-rich foods.

High protein and fatty foods include suet and peanut butter. Many butcher shops will sell suet, and will ground it up if asked as well. Suet is beef fat, and will render (melt) down. You can make your own seed cake mixtures with additives such as seeds, older fruit, peanut butter and more. I don’t usually follow a recipe and mix in what I have on hand that I know the birds will like. 

You can even decorate one of your outside spruce trees for both Christmas and for the birds!  All it takes is a little creativity. Have a decorating party! You can cut a grapefruit in half and hollow it out. Put three small holes in and run twine through to hold it. Pour the melted suet treat into it and place it in the freezer until it is frozen. I have also used hollowed out smaller melon halves. Chickadees and woodpeckers will especially love these treats! I was constantly kept busy making suet cakes, cookies and more for the birds at Beaver Creek near Saskatoon. Once they have found your tasty treats they will keep coming for more! However it is an urban myth that if you remove your feeder the birds that had been feeding off of it will die – they will simply look for and find another food source. Once one bird comes to check out your treats, others will follow. Chickadees especially learn fast and they are the ones that will hang off of and consume the suet seed cookie treats, with recipe following. 

Suet treats

Suet treats

For approximately 2-3 dozen cookies, sift 2 cups flour, ½ tsp. baking soda, and ½ cup sugar. Cut in 2/3 cup rendered suet with a pastry blender until crumbly.  Add 2 eggs until well blended.  Add 2/3 cup of seed blend (i.e. oilseed, sunflower seed, peanuts, raisins…). Knead until smooth. Wrap in wax paper and plastic bag and chill until stiff.  Roll out and slightly flour as do so to about a ¼ inch thickness.  Cut into bird shapes, but mold out a little hole at the top which will be for hanging.

Brush the cookies with 2 slightly beaten egg whites. (Note- I also keep and dry the shells to mix into the dough prior as an additive for calcium for the birds). Place the dough onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 325 for 12-15 minutes, or until the cookies harden. Cool and hang with ribbons, twine or yarn outside on your “Christmas” tree(s)!  Use your imagination to make other edible ornaments – not only will the neighbors appreciate the look of the trees – so will the birds! And you can feel better knowing you have helped them through what looks to be what may be a very long, cold winter!

Join us at the Moose Jaw Nature Society on Wednesday, November 14th at 6:30 pm at the MJ Public Library. We meet upstairs. The program is free, but a $5.00 donation towards materials is recommended. You can also bringsome of your own materials if you have anything extra. There will be an intro to common and uncommon feeder birds, followed by feeder making. Yummy human goodies will also be available, plus everyone goes home with some suet cookies for the critters in their trees. Bring in your own unique bird or squirrel feeder and we will vote on who has the best – to win a home-made mini tire feeder complete with chain hanger and clip, and a bag of oilseed and peanuts.

Epp is an environmental educator and writer and is the President of the Moose Jaw Nature Society. She can be reaced at

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