This is a guest post from my wife.

If there’s one area of our household budget where frugality goes out the window, it’s the birds.

There’s a large picture window over our kitchen sink, and I love to spend my Saturday mornings standing with a cup of tea, watching our neighborhood avian community. Or I keep an eye on the flight activity while I do the large-batch cooking that will see us through the week.

Blue Jay vs. Flicker
Outside our kitchen window is the birdfeeder, a spot worth fighting over.

Even a simple (and seemingly free) hobby like this can be costly. Other than growing your own seeds crops, there aren’t many ways to save money on birdfood. There are websites where you can order birdseed, but the shipping costs will kill you. You can buy seed in huge quantities for bulk discounts, but you’ll need a place to store it. Also, I’ve had problems with moth larvae in my seeds during long-term storage. I’ve just resigned to spend the money, since I enjoy the birds enough to make it worthwhile to me.

Yesterday I spent $50 on bird food:

  • Twenty pounds of thistle seed for the finches
  • Forty pounds of wild birdseed
  • Twenty pounds of black oil sunflower seeds

This will last for about two months, but I also supplement with bags of unsalted in-the-shell peanuts (for the jays), and with suet & seed blocks.

Because J.D. recently purchased eight loaves of bread for a blog post he never wrote, I decided to use some of the leftovers to make my own suet cakes. I did some internet research and found a variety of recipes for do-it-yourself suet. Some of these recipes called for rendering your own lard, but I didn’t feel quite that dedicated. Instead, I chose a formula containing pre-packaged lard, plenty of breadcrumbs, and peanut butter. It was simple to make, and the birds love it.

This type of suet cake typically hangs in a wire cage. Birds that feed on it are clinging feeders. In our neighborhood, these cakes attract flickers and downy woodpeckers, bushtit flocks, nuthatches, finches, and (of course) the occasional starling. Sometimes even a naughty squirrel finds his way to the suet:

Bad Squirrel
Even the squirrels like suet.

Here’s the recipe I used (with a price breakdown):

Home-Made Suet Block

  • 1 pound lard ($1.49)
  • 3/4 cup peanut butter (40 cents — wait for a sale to stock up on a cheap variety)
  • 1/2 cup flour (7 cents)
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal (30 cents)
  • 1 cup sugar (25 cents)
  • approximately half a loaf’s worth of bread crumbs (variable, but no more than $2.00 — free if your husband is a blogger)
  • 1-1/2 cups of mixed seeds, nuts and/or chopped dried fruits (12 cents for seeds only)

Melt the lard and peanut butter over low heat. Mix flour, cornmeal, and sugar and stir in. Add enough bread crumbs to absorb all liquid. Add fruit, seeds, and nuts as desired. Pour into a 9 x 5″ bread pan (lined with plastic wrap), or pour into suet cake molds. (I used molds I had saved from store-bought suet.) Allow to cool completely. Makes about 4 cakes. Keep refrigerated or in a cool place like a basement.

Total cost for four cakes: $4.63, so about $1.20 per cake.

One batch makes a bit more than four cakes of typical size. The cost savings of home-made suet blocks is minimal — at our local hardware store, they typically cost $1.49 each. But this was a great way to use our extra bread, effectively reducing the cost to $0.70 per cake. I processed all the spare loaves into crumbs and stuck them in the freezer to make more of these in the months to come. (This fall I’ll mix in some chopped windfall apples.)

This would make a fun family project that can be customized with whatever you have handy — cereal, dried fruits, stale bread, etc.