Saturday, January 9, 2010

Baking for the Birds

By this time of year, my outdoor chores are limited to keeping the driveway cleared of snow, some anticipated winter pruning and keeping the bird feeder filled.

Truth be told, I don't really mind these chores; all of them are a good excuse to bundle up and get outside, even as my Inner Hibernator whispers, "Take a nap."

In addition to a caged, triple-tube seed feeder that's stocked all winter long with black oil sunflower seeds, I also maintain a caged suet feeder using commercially-made suet cakes I buy at rock bottom prices (.50 a cake). But you may enjoy making your  own version of wild bird cakes that invite inspired improvisation, depending on what you've got on hand in the kitchen.  And, if there are children afoot, you can bet they'll be clamoring to help you out, too.

Most recipes are quite simple, relying on either peanut butter or unflavored gelatin as a base; from there, you simply stir in nuts, dried fruit or seeds of your choice,* pour the goopy mixture into an empty plastic suet container) a Lean Cuisine dish also works well) and refrigerate until it sets.

When you're ready to hang your bird cake(s) outside, pop it out of the tray and insert in your suet feeder, if you have one. If you don't have a caged suet feeder (preferably double-caged to deter squirrels), you can put your creations into those green plastic berry baskets, the kind that strawberries are sold in, or even onion bags.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes, adapted from those found in Birds 'n Bloom magazine, which by the way, don't actually require baking.

Gelatin Seed Blocks

2 1/2 ounce envelopes of unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup of water
Assorted bird seed, nuts, raisins, dried fruit

Empty the gelatin envelopes into the water in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of any combination of the bird seed, nuts and dried fruits. Mix well. Pack the mixture firmly into a plastic container and chill until set.

Woodpecker Delight

1 cup cornmeal
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 cup water
1 cup birdseed

In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the first 5 ingredients. Microwave on high for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the bird seed and let cool. Press into roughly sandwich-sized plastic containers and refrigerate. These will then fit nicely in your suet feeder.

Chickadee Sandwich

If you're too impatient to dissolve the gelatin, you can simplify things by smearing two slices of bread with peanut butter. Sprinkle birdseed on both slices, press together like a sandwich and insert in a suet feeder.

You can also send the children on a pine cone hunt around the yard and then slather the pine cones with the peanut butter mix you've prepared. Thread a string through the pine cones and hang from trees you can easily view from indoors. Grab the binoculars and watch the action. You can also save your old toilet paper rolls and stuff them with your seed mixture to make Peanut Butter Bird Burritos, minus the hot sauce.

The birds will appreciate these treats during the coolest days of winter, your kids will enjoy some old-fashioned fun and you'll get a kick out of cooking like your eight-year-old.

*Depending on what you've got on hand, you can also incorporate the grease from cooking bacon into your bird cakes, along with stale breakfast cereal, bread or waffles torn into pieces, cat or dog food (dry or canned), cooked rice, oatmeal and apple cores. Aim for a consistency that's not as wet as pancake batter but moist enough to spread like butter.

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