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Mix up a little treat for birds and other backyard critters
When finished smearing the pine cones with peanut butter, students dip them into a bag of bird seed until covered with seed and ready to hang.
All About Birds: Information from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Loosened belts and resolutions to eat less — the flabby aftermath of the holiday season — is not a pretty sight.

But while we're flipping through fad diets to work off baked hams and sugar cookies, the situation outdoors runs quite the opposite.

Native birds and other wildlife are showing their ribs, struggling to survive through the lean months of cold. In fact, dining opportunities at this time of the year are downright pitiful.

"There are no really good high-fat, high-protein food sources in the area," said Billy Skaggs, Hall County Cooperative Extension coordinator.

Of course berries, such as nandina, are the most common natural food source. However, with the recent snow and ice, even those sparse meals have been hard to find.

Cheryl Hinderscheid, president of Gainesville's Crabapple Garden Club, understands that wild birds can't survive solely on the holly and mahonia berries in her yard. She supplements their diet with a combination of suet and black oil sunflower seeds.

Generally speaking, suet is just animal fat. But it's also commercially available as bird feed in the form of congealed cakes, often with particular nut or fruit additions.

In the past month Hinderscheid has been making her own cakes.

"I'm using bacon grease and lard with corn meal and seed and dried fruit and oatmeal," Hinderscheid said.

Her recipe is simple: Melt the lard and bacon grease, then throw in the cornmeal and "anything that the birds will eat." She places the mixture in the refrigerator until it hardens. At that point the cake is ready to go outside.

Hinderscheid puts her suet in small suet cages or feeders, available at most hardware stores, and hangs them.

She's also been experimenting with empty grapefruit rinds to hold the suet, using sticks as lathing to prevent any single bird or small animal from hogging the whole thing.

On most afternoons Hinderscheid is rewarded with displays of nuthatches, tufted titmouses and pine warblers feeding on the suet attached to a tree outside of her home.

And while providing feed is essential, bird lovers can also tailor their landscaping to help the bird population survive the winter.

Gainesville Master Gardener Lori Carson recommends putting in plant varieties that produce berries in the fall and winter.

Beautyberry, pyracantha, cotoneaster, serviceberry and dogwood are ideal for this purpose, according to Skaggs. He also suggests that acorn-bearing trees can be an important component of the winter garden, providing nutrition to wildlife and possibly reducing the competition between squirrels and birds for feed.

For her part, Hinderschied no longer worries about that competition.

"I've given up. I feed the squirrels, too," she said.

She also keeps a defroster in her bird bath, as an ample supply of water is just as critical as food and often harder to provide when temperatures consistently fall below freezing.

Most importantly, Hinderscheid's example proves that keeping the native birds happy and healthy throughout the year is relatively easy. It just takes a little time, effort and generosity.

We can't forget that birds don't really need seed only in the spring or summer, according to Skaggs.

They need it now.