How to Make Winter Suet for Birds

Photos: Julie Zickefoose.

Looking for a homemade suet recipe you can make in your kitchen and feed to the birds during the winter? If so, this recipe for Zick Dough by nature writer and artist Julie Zickefoose of Whipple, Ohio, will lure a variety of visitors to your feeders, deck or balcony and help keep them fat and happy during the harshest months of the year. Zick Dough (a new and improved recipe)

Prep time: 2 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 7 cups


  • 1 cup lard
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 2 cups quick oats
  • 2 cups unmedicated chick starter (available at feed store)
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  1. Melt lard and peanut butter together in microwave until liquid.
  2. Put dry ingredients in mixer and blend.
  3. Slowly pour in melted lard/peanut butter mixture until a crumbly, lumpy consistency is attained.
  4. Store in peanut butter jars. Does not need refrigeration. Serve crumbled.
  5. Be aware that this recipe makes a suet that is different in several respects from the kind you see in retail stores that sell bird seed and supplies.

    Carolina wren eats suet

    Commercial suet is sold as cakes designed to fit into suet feeders that hold the suet in place with a plastic-coated wire grid. One thing that makes Zick Dough different from commercial suets is the texture: it's a crumbly suet that will fall right through typical suet feeders. Zickefoose likes to put it in a plastic glass feeder with a dome. If rain isn’t in the forecast, she’ll put it in a shallow dish or even spread it out on the railing of her deck.

    Another thing that makes Zick Dough different is that it is a very rich food. While Zickefoose said she’s happy to share the recipe, she is quick to give it a “too much of a good thing” warning. Her original recipe did not include the chick starter. It was so rich and fatty it caused problems in some bluebirds — which tend to have addictive personalities. Several bluebirds began relying primarily on the “old” Zick Dough and developed health problems such as gout. That’s when Zickefoose added the chick starter to give the recipe more complete nutrition.

    Chick starter is an extruded pellet used to feed domestic hens and is available in animal seed and feed stores. It's formulated to help chicks grow quickly and develop strong bones. Think of it as puppy chow for birds, Zickefoose said. It adds nutritional oomph to yellow cornmeal, oats, peanut butter and lard. If you live in an urban or surburban area that doesn’t have a feed store, you can omit chick starter and use what Zickefoose calls her “old” Zick Dough recipe:

    Old Zick Dough

    1 cup peanut butter

    1 cup lard

    2 cups yellow cornmeal

    2 cups quick oats

    1 cup flour

    Prepare as in the new recipe.

    However, if you omit the chick starter, Zickefoose strongly urges you to only use it in cold winter weather. Even with the improved recipe, Zickefoose says to discontinue using it when the weather turns warm. Both recipes, she said, are far too rich and fatty to feed to birds when they have easy access to natural food supplies.

    Zick Dough

    “They’re wonderful supplements to help insect-eating birds make it through the winter,” Zickefoose said. “And though it’s tempting to keep feeding it into spring, it’s best for the birds to allow them to switch over naturally to insect protein when the weather warms, and keep Zick Dough for the tough times of winter.”

    Some of the birds that Zick Dough will attract include bluebirds, Carolina wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers of all species, song, chipping, white-throated and field sparrows, towhees, cardinals and bluebirds.

    Want to make a double batch?

    Zickefoose likes to make double batches. She prefers to use a kitchen scale instead of measuring cups to measure the melty ingredients. It's much easier to watch the scale and just add 8 ounces of lard or peanut butter into a bowl than to cram it into a cup measure, she said. Of course you'll need a cup measure for the dry ingredients, but she said they're a snap to measure. If you haven't got an electric mixer, just mix the ingredients by hand. This is how Zickefoose said she did it for 15 years before finally getting an electric mixer.

    Here's a video made by Zickefoose’s husband, Bill Thompson III, showing her making a large batch of Zick Dough by hand. Thompson is publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, and Zickefoose is a contributing editor.

    Photo of Carolina wren: Julie Zickefoose