So you’re cooped up inside, wild-eyed from a solid month of disciplined social distancing, and thinking ever more seriously about hauling a “Christmas tree” into your home, in April, just to have “more stuff to look at.” That’s lunacy. Propping up a tree in your living room is frankly a batshit way of diversifying your environment. Why not skip ahead and just dig up someone’s grave, you absolute psycho.
Besides, there are simpler and more satisfying ways of bringing the beauty of nature closer to where you can be entertained by it. What you should do, instead of reforesting your apartment, is feed the birds. Birds are good to look at! They’re curious and colorful and alive, and they make interesting noises, and there are more of them than you think, doing bird things just out of sight, all the time. Why not offer the birds a little food, and have them do more of those bird things where you can watch? In what way is that not infinitely less sad than festooning a dead tree and asking it to keep you company while you play video games?
Let’s make some bird suet together. Suet is rendered fat, and birds love this stuff, especially when it’s crammed full of other things birds like to eat, like seeds and nuts and berries and desiccated beetle larva. You’ve got more of what you need for this than you think already taking up space in your pantry, and the rest of it can be grabbed quickly and cheaply in one masked-up, be-gloved, thoroughly disinfected errand run. Next time you need to do some food shopping, add a few things to your list. Let’s do this.
Your local grocer almost certainly has the one freezer case, probably located somewhere near the meat counter, full of the less presentable animal hunks: beef soup bones, bullet-hard frozen turkeys, long forgotten bricks of scrapple encased in a solid inch of fuzzy freezer ice. There’s a good chance somewhere buried in there is a frozen blob or two of beef suet, usually in portions weighing right around a pound. One block of this frozen beef goop will yield at least two hearty portions of disgusting bird food. Grab one block of frozen suet, take it home, and sock it away in your freezer.
When you’re ready to cook up a batch of bird sludge, haul the frozen blob out of the freezer, peel away its packaging, and use a heavy chef’s knife or a serrated bread knife or [God help you] a circular saw to cut it in half. Yes, this will be a pain in the ass—the suet is frozen solid and unpleasantly smooth, and it’s a little slippery and gross to handle, and it looks like an alien fetus. Power through! Think of the poor, hungry little songbirds out there, aching for a chance to dunk their beaks into a glistening brick of reeking sustenance. Put some weight on the knife, get a little sawing action going, and halve that damn suet. Chuck half of it back into the freezer, for later use.
You can go one of a few ways, here. You could put the frozen chunk of suet into a bowl of some sort and let it thaw slowly on your countertop, where the various stages of melting from a creased, crevassed chunk of pink ice to a translucent blob of quivering slime will be a mildly fascinating thing to observe, as quarantine entertainment goes. You could use your microwave’s “thaw” or “defrost” settings to speed that process along, which will be somewhat less arresting a spectacle but will save you a couple hours of waiting. Or you can lay the chunk back on the cutting board, grab up your cutting tool, and saw that fucker into manageable slices, or even-more-manageable cubes, fit for immediate rendering. After just five minutes of grunting and swearing—give or take however long it takes to staunch the flow of blood from one or more gruesome knife wounds—you’ll be underway.
The chopped-up suet will need 10 minutes or so in a saucepan over medium heat to go from frozen shreds to a glistening soup. Use this time to gather some ingredients. Certain birds will eat rendered, reconstituted suet served plain, but all birds will much more eagerly eat suet that has other delicious things embedded in it. Before settling for a couple handfuls of packaged wild bird seed, it’s worth seeing what you’ve got on hand for concocting your own recipe. The effort will allow you to customize the meal to the bird, which is part of the fun. Woodpeckers will go to town on just about any combination of ingredients; flycatchers and waxwings will be attracted to fruit; nuthatches and wrens might go for peanuts; bluebirds enjoy the dreaded mealworms. Grab up lots of things. I go with raisins, craisins, unsalted peanuts, nyjer seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, blueberries, a scoop of peanut butter, and an alarming fistful of dried mealworms. You could add any other sort of unsalted nut, pretty much any dried grain or seed, and whatever fruit you’ve got lying around. Orange pulp! Grapes! Apple chunks! A spoonful of peanut butter! Old dried oatmeal you swore to incorporate into your routine and then abandoned after one helping, four years ago!
Gather your stuff while the suet renders. When the suet is fully rendered and smooth, take it off the heat and give it a few minutes to cool. Not because you’re going to ram your hands in there—god no—but because you don’t necessarily want it hot enough to cook the various ingredients you’re putting into it. When it has cooled somewhat, dump in there a small handful of flour, and then a handful of cornmeal. It’s fine if you only have one or the other of these things; they’re there to bulk up the suet and give it structure, but there are birds who will eat this sludge even if all you do after rendering is put it outside in a bowl. If you’ve got some all-purpose flour and some cornmeal you can mix in there, your suet will be better and more popular for it. Dump some in there and use a fork or a rubber spatula or your disturbingly underutilized toothbrush to mix the fat and flour together into a disgusting savory gruel.
Now add your chunks. Peanuts and peanut butter and berries will make the suet steadily less nauseating, until before long you are almost convinced to say screw the birds, grab a spoon, and call it an afternoon snack. And, fuck it, give it a taste! Not completely gross! Why, another spoonful of Jif here, another handful of raisins there, and you could totally feed it to your children! My friend, it’s this kind of thinking that goes a long way toward explaining why you are not allowed to be in the company of your children without professional supervision.
The suet is about to get very, very gross. In my part of the world, the most prized birdies for birdwatching require special measures. The Eastern Bluebird, which is about as lovely as songbirds get, is somewhat aloof, and will not deign to grace your feeders for a few lousy bites of sunflower seed (the peasant food of birdland). To reel in these beauties, and to make your suet as appealing as possible to as many different birds as possible, you are going to set your jaw, gulp down your rising gorge, and stir in a heaping handful of dried mealworms. This will be just as deeply unappetizing as it sounds, which is possibly a good thing, because it will get you to stop wolfing down sticky handfuls of dressed-up cow fat. Or, anyway, it fucking better.
You can buy bags of mealworms at your various home improvement megastores, and at your various tractor or farm supply stores, and at your various pet stores, and even at your various large grocery chains. You can order them online. What you cannot do is use the excuse that you were unable to get your hands on a bag of mealworms in order to avoid the most unpleasant step of this temporary blog site recipe!
There’s no need to be super fine about this. Just add some of this and that, a little at a time, folding and stirring as you go, until you’ve got a coarse granola of chunks caulked together by the disgusting cooling batter of suet and flour. Next, use a spoon or a rubber spatula to ease this mess out of your saucepan and onto a nice big sheet of plastic cling wrap. The idea is to smush and pinch and otherwise gather the blob into a rough block shape and then sock it away in your freezer, and both phases of this process will be easier and cleaner if the whole deal is wrapped up in plastic. You don’t need to freeze it, but it’s much cleaner to handle when it’s frozen, and the birds don’t mind pecking away at it in its frozen condition. A frosty delight!
Et voila! You have made suet, and you are now a bird chef. Getting this stuff into a bird’s face is easy enough: haul it out of the freezer, unwrap it, drop it into a suet holder (available for cheap at home improvement cathedrals) and hang it from a tree. You can also thaw it a little and spackle it into knobs or holes in trees or even divots in mason walls. Prop it up inside an empty hanging flower pot. You could just set it on a fence post! The birds will find it. I recommend the suet holder, because it’s less messy and will make it marginally more challenging for squirrels to access, and you will have the entertainment of watching them try. Whatever you do, try to put it under some kind of cover—tree boughs, an awning, the eaves of your roof—so that birds who find it will be protected from Death From Above while chowing down.
You don’t need a big park or a big backyard for this kind of thing. Whip up a batch, hang it outside somewhere, set up someplace where you’ve got a view, and see what happens. Birds are a delight to watch, and you may be surprised by how many different kinds of birds swing by for a meal. Soon you will even have regulars, and you will learn their names and their songs and their nesting and roosting behaviors, and before long you will have formed complex relationships with your little bird pals. It won’t replace the human contact that a pandemic has all but eliminated, but you could do a lot worse than communing with nature.