A Winter Solstice Celebration

The winter solstice, also known as “Midwinter” and “The Longest Night” marks the astronomical beginning of winter as well as the shortest day and longest night of the year. After this date (occurring between the 20th-22nd   of December each year) our daylight hours will begin to get longer, but we still have three more months of winter until spring. We decided to begin a new tradition to celebrate not only the winter season, but our neighborhood wildlife that we get so much joy from observing throughout the year.

Suet cake in a re-purposed mug!

Winter marks the beginning of a time of hardship for our wild friends, even though they are perfectly equipped to cope with the harsh outdoor environment, food is not as plentiful as it is in the summer months. So to give them a little boost this is when we hang our suet feeders, peanut cages, and keep our seed feeders full. To make it a little more special we chose a tree in our yard to decorate with some festive treats too!

A string of popcorn and cranberries!
Cranberry & Orange Ornament

Popcorn Strings!: Since these are for wild birds that could be harmed by ingesting string or thread, I chose to string our popcorn on a length of wire.  Birds wont be able to take any with them when they grab a kernel and it eliminates the needle from the equation making this a kid friendly project! We popped plain popcorn in a pot on the stove with a bit of melted tallow instead of our usual bacon fat (yes we really do that and it is amazing). For a splash of color and a little vitamin C and moisture for our feathery friends I added fresh cranberries to the strings, as well as orange slices.

A Polar Bear Bird ‘Cookie”

Bird Friendly “Cookies” are also on the menu Preheat your oven to 350 and combine in the bowl of a food processor until very sticky:

1 cup dried dates & dehydrated apples

½ cup oatmeal

½ cup raisins

¼ unsalted sunflower seeds

¼ cup meal worms (optional)

Transfer mixture to a large bowl and add two Tablespoons natural peanut butter, and one Tablespoon raw honey, stir until thoroughly incorporated, mixture will become hard to stir.  Press into cookie cutter shapes and bake for 20 minutes. Cool, string on wire and hang.

Don’t Forget Good Ole Rabbit: For our very plentiful population of wild rabbits, carrots and apples will be roughly chopped and placed in areas they are known to frequent. Corn cobs will be added to our squirrel feeder…maybe now they’ll stay out of our garage.

What about water? A lot of people express concern about where birds get water in the winter when all fresh water sources are frozen. Rest assured that their water requirements are met by eating snow and wild berries and fruit. But an open water source is always appreciated. You can find various heated bird baths available on the market and you may find that your yard becomes a hot bed of wild bird activity. Purchase a low to the ground bath if you wish to give your rabbit visitors a drink as well.

But where do they sleep?  I have often found myself wondering this same question on blustery cold nights.  Much like our chickens in the coop, wild birds roost together in large groups to conserve heat. They choose tree cavities, the root balls of upturned trees, and the eves and rafters of old barns.  Some species of wild birds will over-winter as a family in the birdhouse they claimed in the spring, so you may want to think twice before you clean it out at the end of the year. – I’d even use it as an excuse to leave that brush pile until spring.  Bird watchers can catch wild birds roosting just after sunset.

A note regarding the special treats mentioned in this article: The popcorn strings, and bird cookies will only be presented on this day until they are gone and they will not be available to wildlife the entire season to prevent dependence on them. If you live in an area that prohibits the feeding of wildlife, please observe these rules as they are there to protect not only the wildlife, but you and your family as well.

Homemade Suet Cakes

Our family loves wildlife and we spend a lot of time looking out the windows watching the birds. Slowly our boys are learning some of the more easily identifiable species, like robins and cardinals. Not too shabby for two year olds!  To keep our avian entertainment steady we hang bird feeders. When the weather starts getting cooler with winter around the corner I like to provide suet cakes. Suet cakes provide a high energy, easily digestible food source which is invaluable in winter months when regular meals can be harder to find. They are also really easy to make yourself! Since they are made from beef fat (suet) and they can go rancid sitting on a store shelf for months at a time coupled with the fact that ingredients like peanuts and fruit can support mold growth, Serious birders recommend making your own suet cakes rather than purchasing them. Oh! And they cost about .50 cents each to make, so if that doesn’t push you over the edge on your decision I don’t know what would. Take care to only feed suet cakes in the winter months when temperatures are freezing. Feeding suet in warm weather can cause birds belly feathers to get coated in suet during nesting season. When they sit on their eggs the suet can coat the porous shells of their eggs, thereby preventing the embryo from getting the oxygen it needs for proper development.

Beef suet that has been rendered (a product now called “tallow”) that has been cooled then cut into chunks to be used in various applications.

You can visit your favorite butcher and ask for suet by the pound, it’s really cheap. I like to buy 5 pounds at a time and I ask them to cut it up into small chunks, or better yet grind it up for me. Then I put it in the crock pot on low until it is melted (there will be some solid pieces floating around) then using a paper towel lined mesh strainer, strain the now rendered suet into a bowl. Toss out the solid pieces – that is of course unless you enjoy cracklin’s… From here you can go straight to making your suet cakes.

Add 5 cups birdseed to 4 cups melted suet.
Allow the mixture to cool until it begins to turn opaque. This helps the seeds to stay suspended in the fat.

 

Working in small batches, stir 5 cups of birdseed into 4 cups melted suet. Let this mixture set until the suet begins to cool and turn slightly opaque, then stir it well to make sure the seed is evenly disbursed. This ensures that all the seed will stay suspended in the suet rather than sinking to the bottom. Pour mixture into a paper milk carton with the top cut off to make suet cakes to fit in square suet feeders. Allow it to cool at room temperature on your counter, or to speed the process place it in your fridge. When they are solid cut away the paper carton, allow them to come to room temperature and cut into 1 ½ inch chunks with a hot knife just like an ice cream cake! My favorite way to make these is to pour the suet mixture into a mini bundt or doughnut pan to make wreaths, and there is no cutting involved! They make awesome gifts for any bird lover! Store finished suet cakes in the fridge or freezer until needed. – The “flavor” possibilities are endless too, add peanuts and peanut butter, meal worms, cranberries, dried fruits, and any variety of seeds you wish!

Cut the suet cakes with a hot knife
Homemade Suet Cakes
Alternately, you can pour the suet mixture into molds that make for easy hanging.

I hope your family enjoys making these as much as we do!

SUET CAKE RECIPE:

4 Cups rendered beef suet

5 Cups Bird Seed mixture of preference

Cranberries, peanuts, peanut butter, meal worms, dried fruit of your choice (optional)

Yield: 1 paper carton = about 4 suet cakes or 6 mini bundt wreaths

Working in small batches, stir 5 cups of birdseed into 4 cups melted suet. Let this mixture set until the suet begins to cool and turn slightly opaque, then stir it well to make sure the seed is evenly disbursed. This ensures that all the seed will stay suspended in the suet rather than sinking to the bottom. Pour mixture into a paper milk carton with the top cut off to make suet cakes to fit in square suet feeders. Allow it to cool at room temperature on your counter, or to speed the process place it in your fridge. When they are solid cut away the paper carton, allow them to come to room temperature and cut into 1 ½ inch chunks with a hot knife just like an ice cream cake! Or pour into mini bundt or donut pans.

5 Things You Can Do Right Now To Prepare For Canning Season Next Year

Canning is one of those things that homesteaders look forward to each year with excited anticipation and a slight twinge of dread. Nothing beats the quality and the feeling of accomplishment you get from preserving your harvest each year, and that peach cobbler sure is to die for in the frigid depths of January…but it’s such a lot of work, and most of that time spent is in the preparation. The jars need sterilized ,the lids need boiled, and the magnet fell out of the gosh dang lid grabber again. With all that happens during the canning season there are a few things you can do right now to prepare for next season that will make your life a little easier come harvest time.

Remove the gasket in the lid of your pressure canner and inspect it for cracks or disintegration.
  1. Check and replace the gasket on your pressure canner. Remove the gasket from the lid of your pressure canner and look for cracks in the rubber or signs of disintegration. Bad gaskets will affect your canners ability to reach and maintain proper pressure while in use. Gaskets should be replaced every 2-3 years as part of your canners maintenance regimen. You can pick one up online or at your local hardware store for around $10 or less.
You can get your dial gauges tested at your County Extension Office or a local hardware store.
  1. Get your dial gauge tested (Weighted gauges do not require testing). You can take your dial gauge to your county extension office to have it tested, often free of charge (be sure to call ahead so they have someone on staff to test it for you), . It is recommended to have your gauge tested and adjusted if need be before each canning season to ensure your safety. Gauges that read high can result in under-processed foods that are unsafe to consume. Ones that read low can result in not only over-processed canned food but it increases the risk of dangerous kitchen mishaps. If your gauge tests more that 2 pounds off, high or low it should be replaced. Cracked, broken, or otherwise damaged gauges must be replaced. You can find replacements online for around $15. Other places that test dial gauges include hardware stores and companies like “Presto” that manufacture canning equipment.
An example of rust that has been transferred to the lid of a sealed jar from a rusty ring.
An example of rusty and dented rings that should be discarded.
  1. Sort through your collection of can rings. Discard any rusty, worn, or dented rings. Dents can mean an improper seal.  Rust can transfer to the lids making it hard to remove the ring from the jar causing the lid to loosen when removing the ring before storage. To avoid rust, remember to always remove the ring from your canned goods 24 hours after removal from the canning vessel before long term storage. Then wash them in warm soapy water, drying them thoroughly to ensure they have a long rust free life. Leaving the rings on the jars can also cause a false seal or rust eating through can lids making food unsafe. Don’t want to just throw away your busted rings? GO HERE  AND HERE to see some great ways to re-purpose those rings!
  1. Inspect those jars. As you work your way through your pantry this winter wash your jars with warm soapy water and while they are still wet run your finger around the rim of each jar to check for any nicks or chips in the glass that would cause an improper seal. Discard any jars with defects, or give them a new life as decorations in your home. I like to use mine as vases for all the bouquets my boys carefully pick for me in the summer months.  Store unused jars upright, not upside down.  I like to place a hunk of cardboard on top of them to block dust from entering to make cleaning and sterilizing easier next season.
  1. Watch for off season deals. Keep your peepers peeled at your favorite stores for canning equipment on sale. You can often find great deals on jars, lids, rings, and maybe even that large capacity pressure canner you day dreamed of while you started your 5th load of canned beef this October. Now is also a great time to cruise the ball website for tested canning recipes to try something new and different next season. I’ve found some of my favorite recipes there…even an apple pie filling recipe that earned first place at the county fair this year!