This Addictive Homemade Suet Will Keep Your Birds Returning for More

Give feathered visitors a dietary boost with Zick Dough, an energy-rich delicacy made by nature writer Julie Zickefoose.
A nuthatch standing on wood covered in suet dough holds a chunk in its beak.
White-breasted Nuthatch. Photo: Julie Zickefoose

I’d never seen a Pileated Woodpecker eat out of a person’s hand until 2002, when Carrie Griffis, a reader of my long-running nature blog, sent me photos taken on her back deck, where the huge woodpeckers were regular visitors. My first question was: “What are you feeding them?!” Carrie had made a homemade concoction she called peanut butter suet dough. I bought the ingredients and whomped together my first batch that week. The birds immediately took notice. More than 20 years later, I’m still serving a version of the recipe to a stunning array of species in my Ohio yard.

With this dough, I’ve developed years-long relationships with a pair of Chipping Sparrows, a Yellow-throated Warbler, a pair of Pine Warblers, and any number of woodpeckers. Nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, Blue Jays, and Brown Thrashers all clamor for more. I’ve even used it to help Summer Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles through harsh May freezes. It’s good stuff when made and offered with care. 

Through the years, I’ve learned a lot about the composition and use of this superfood. Followers of my blog, where I share my feeding observations, named it Zick Dough; though I didn’t create it, the name stuck. What I did do was pay close attention to the birds that consumed it, and my recipe has evolved to better nourish them.

It's good stuff when made and offered with care. 

The current version leans on unmedicated chick starter, which can be bought in farm and feed stores or online and is loaded with protein, calcium, and other vital nutrients. Without it, the original recipe caused gout in my bluebirds when consumed in excess. A reader helped me out, noting that the mix contained too much fat and not enough calcium (something to be aware of with any homemade suet). Using chick starter as a base helps correct the deficiencies. Thus was born Zick Dough, Improved, also featuring cornmeal, rolled oats, lard, peanut butter, and flour.

Zick Dough, Improved is a crumbly concoction not suited for a typical suet cage. It is best provided in a small, covered feeder that will keep it clean and perfectly dry. I’m a big fan of Plexiglas domes, which I suspend over a hanging cup feeder. This helps keep squirrels and chipmunks away. To thwart bold but skittish European Starlings and House Sparrows, which will disappear your Zick Dough in no time, hang the feeder within a few feet of an active window. 

As with all suet, Zick Dough is a rich food and should be withheld in late spring and summer, when natural foods are readily available for foraging and feeding chicks. It’s best reserved for winter as a once-daily treat loaded with the energy and nutrition birds need. It’s wonderful during ice storms when fruit and insects are locked away, or in early spring when the weather turns vile for migrants. Home cooking for your feathery neighbors will quickly endear you to them. Don’t be surprised if they tap on your window for more. 


Recipe: Zick Dough, Improved 

Combine dry ingredients:

2 cups chick starter, unmedicated

2 cups quick oats

3 cups white flour (whole wheat spoils too quickly) 

1½ cups yellow cornmeal

Melt together in microwave:

1 cup lard (you can use vegetable shortening, but my birds clearly prefer lard)

1 cup peanut butter

Directions: In a large mixing bowl, slowly add the melted fats to the dry mixture while gently stirring or mixing on low until a dough forms. If too gummy, add a little more flour and cornmeal until soft, dry, and crumbly. Makes 12 cups, or 3.5 pounds. Store in mason jars in a cool place. 

Serving: Provide a half cup of dough once a day as a winter or early spring treat (in temps below 55 degrees Fahrenheit only). Place either on a dry, flat surface or, ideally, a small dish with a cover to protect from rain and squirrels.