Rendering fat for making bird suet.

Earlier this year, a friend offered us several bags of fat from their uncles processed pigs. Being avid birders, we immediately thought of using the fat for suet, and gladly accepted.

As usual, we had more ideas than time, and the suet sat in the freezer for almost a year. Finally we allocated time for the project, and researched suet recipes online. Usually when trying something new, I will look for similar recipes. In my mind, consistency like this means a greater chance of success.  For suet ideas and ingredients, I relied on a several sites.  Wildbirdscoop.com  and The Farmers Almanac will get you started.

My ingredients changed last minute –  over the last few months, I kept scraps of bread, leftover nuts and such to be chopped up and added to the suet. Unfortunately, I moved it from the freezer to the fridge too early and it molded. That went into the trash, and I scanned the kitchen for items to include. The final ingredient list included peanut butter, oats, a standard bird seed mix, and a partial quart bag of West Virginia blackberries.

My tips for ingredients are to make sure everything is dry and similar in size so that your suet will stay together in a single piece.  In the first batch, I added berries that were too wet, which caused the suet to crumble, which is messy, and will lead to the suet falling from your feeder.

You need to have your ingredients ready before you render your fat, as you will need to add it to the warm fat so it can be molded into the size and shape you desire.  We tried 2 forms for the completed suet: a mini muffin tin and a 9×9 Pyrex dish (both lined with plastic wrap).

Once your rendered fat is strained and still warm, we added our “good stuff” ingredients, which were berries, oats, and bread – basically everything but the store bought bird seed. Once that was mixed in, I added bird seed in small, half-cup batches, until the mix looked thick and filled with ingredients for the birds. By this time, the mixture had cooled, and I carefully made small balls of suet and flattened each ball in the mini muffin tin. Once that was full, the remainder went into the pyrex dish.

Important note: some recipes say you should render the fat 2 times so it ends up harder. I would recommend this!  I only rendered once, and the result was very soft suet. The mini muffin suet blocks work well, but will melt quickly. I keep them in the freezer until needed. The pyrex dish never got hard, and since its in a large dish it had to be divided into smaller chucks. The pro of having softer suet it that it can be rubbed onto tree bark, which the wood peckers loved, but for general use, I would render twice.

For the process of rendering the fat, which I had never done, I relied on Good Cookery, which has provided an instructional video.

I won’t transcribe the entire rendering process, mostly because I found myself referring to that video while I actually rendered the fat, pausing when needed, to ensure that my product was looking similar.

Here are a few pics of the finished product, with some pics of the fat as it’s rendered.

Oh, it’s also worth noting that you can now sign up for email updates as blog posts are released. Click here to sign up!

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14 books read in 2017! Here’s the list, with my 5 favorites.

As a child, I had horrible reading skills.  You could always find me with an almanac or other reference book, but outside of a few R.L.Stine books, I didn’t fully read an entire book until I was well into my 30’s.  This all changed a few years ago, and every year I try to read more than the previous year.

Thanks to Goodreads.com, I can easily track my reading list. It’s nice to go over the list and rank them, but also good to post here for accountability. For 2018 I’d like to read at least 16 books.

Here is 2017’s list with the Top 5, and a couple of notes on each!

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith, Betty.  Great book! One of my Top 5 favorites of all time
  • Farmer Boy. Wilder, Laura Ingalls.  Lots of interesting old farming methods included, some of which my dads family employed. 
  • Brave New World. Huxley, Aldous. They pray to Ford and take drugs to keep themselves content – interesting read on a 1930’s view of the future.
  • The Catcher in the Rye.  Salinger, JD. Holden reminds me a lot of myself.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood, Margaret. Wow. Read this oddly relevant dystopian novel. I thought the TV show followed the book well.
  • The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge #1), Follett, Ken.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Rowling, JK
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Rowling, JK
  • Little House in the Big Woods.  Wilder, Laura Ingalls.
  • Little House on the Prairie. Wilder, Laura Ingalls.
  • Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. Damerow, Gail.
  • Angela’s Ashes. McCourt, Frank.
  • On the banks of Plum Creek. Wilder, Laura Ingalls.  (Plum creek laughed and talked to itself much too often, making it my least favorite book of the year.)

 

 

The “New” thrift store table.

Any thrift store pickers out there? Last week I came across this small table at a local thrift store. Originally I planned on finding a project that could be fixed up and resold, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this guy was staying with me.

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This table wants to be a table, it wants to be used, and for me, there is no better feeling than finding something thats been abandoned and helping it live again.  Check out the patch on the edge of the top. It amazes me how carefully cut the patch is. It makes me believe that this table was truly appreciated and cared for by someone.

And it was only $3.03!

If anyone can tell what kind of wood this is, or knows anything about the construction or knob, or age,  let me know.

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Sand Hill Crane Migration (2/2018 Update)

How lucky am I to live directly underneath one of the main north-south migration routes for these cranes? Every year we see a handful as they pass over north Georgia, but this year we were home on December 14th, and saw thousands go through. Thousands! Imagine the amount in this video x20 or so groups. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced, and the best part is that my dad was here and got to experience it. We were in awe. Check out the video here.

February 20, 2018 Update!

Last week we noticed a flock of cranes flying back north, and yesterday we saw several hundred cranes flying over.  The return north is earlier than most sites led me to believe were the norm. Maybe this means spring is here!

 

Tennessee Warblers stopping by the birdbath. October 2017.

Just wanted to post this video of the Tennessee Warblers visiting the backyard. There are about a dozen that show up around 5pm to eat and play in the birdbath. They have only been visiting for a couple of weeks, so I wonder if they have started migrating south for winter.  I guess it’s that time of year.

Our busy birdbath, and tips from our birdbath design experiments.

 

 

It’s been a dry month in this part of Georgia. Leaves are drying up and falling, much earlier than usual.  We had lots of rain with Hurricane Irma, and today we have rain with Nate passing over us, but in between was bone dry. Dust clouds follow the lawn mowers, and lots of birds have been flocking to the birdbath.

This month there are several new birds, or at least rare birds, that are hanging out. About a dozen warblers come in daily. I believe they are Tennessee Warblers , but I’m not 100% sure.  Redstarts and Hooded Warblers have also stopped by often.

You can see Tennessee Warblers and a Redstart in the video below.

 

 

 

The birdbath in the video is homemade, and started life as an experimental fire pit. During the experiment it filled with water and birds immediately started visiting it, ignoring the 2 store bought birdbaths in the yard.  After researching birdbaths online, adjustments were made and birds absolutely love it – even though it is a little dumpy looking.  Dad helped me set this one up a few years ago. When we finished, we sat down before gathering up the tools, and looked over to see a bird work its way down through the branches to get in the water. We were completely shocked.

The reasons I think the birds like this one, versus the store bought baths are listed below. This info came from several sources, and lots of trial and error, but Cornell is a good resource for birding if you’d like to research further.

Mark’s Birdbath Tips:

  • Natural is better. Birds need to feel at home and trust the space.
  • Birds can see water from above easier if the birdbath has a darker bottom.
  • A bath with a rough bottom is easier for birds to land and stand on.
  • Add rocks to vary the puddle size so its welcoming to birds of different sizes.
  • Shallow is best. The deepest part of this bath is only about 2-3″ deep, and in those spots I have rocks providing a slope so nothing gets trapped without an exit.
  • Add a fountain so there is a trickle. It does not need to be strong, but the sound will attract birds. The pump I use is about $20 at Lowe’s and is simple to set up.
  • Don’t put your pump at the bottom of the pond – it can get clogged with sediment and burn up. Set it on a block or a brick to keep it off the bottom.
  • Provide natural cover, like branches and plants, so the birds can check out the surroundings before jumping into the pool. They need to trust the area first.

I found that most birdbaths at stores were designed around humans, not necessarily birds. For this reason, I got a pond liner and altered it to fit my needs. See the diagram below. Since it worked well, we followed the same tips and built an even larger version for my dad in West Virginia. It too gets more birds than his previous birdbaths.

About the birdbath in the video.

We started with a simple pond liner from Lowe’s and dug a pit just slightly shorter than the height of the liner.

birdbath diagram

Because most pond liners are too deep for a birdbath, we bought hardware cloth wire and made a shelf about 3 inches from the TOP of the pond. This is to hold rocks and give a “bottom” to the bath, but will still allow you to have a large reservoir of water. Don’t Secure the wire yet, just set it in and measure the distance from the bottom of the liner to the wire. Note that I forgot to label the wire in the image, but its roughly the same as the “water level” line.

That measurement will be the height of the supports you need for the basin that sits on top and serves as the main part of the bath. I used a cinder block standing on its end. If its an odd size,stack bricks or even use an upside down bucket for support.

Add a brick or something similar for your pump to sit on. The liner we used had a ledge built on to the sides that was perfect for the pump.

Once that support is in, you can place your wire back into the liner. The wire should be resting at the top of the support. Remember – you aren’t looking for perfection here. As long as your support is stable you’re good.

Cut a hole in the wire large enough for the pump, the hoses, and your hand to fit into.

Make sure the hole in the wire is above the spot or brick where your pump will go. We screwed the wire to the top lip of the birdbath. Pre-drill these so it doesn’t crack the liner.

Next Add a layer of bricks, or in our case a half cinder block on top of the support, sandwiching the wire in between.

Add your basin on top of this. Ours was a homemade concrete bowl, but on dad’s we used a dark saucer, about 15″ wide from Lowe’s that was meant to sit under a flower pot.

Make sure the stack is stable. If yes, you are ready to add the pump through the hole in the wire.  The hose from the pump will run into the basin. The basin will fill and then pour over into the pond liner.

Add a little water to the basin and test the pump. You will want to add a rock, or small piece of wood under the basin so the water pours where you want it to.

If everything tests well, fill the liner up  so that there are about 2-3 inches of water over the wire.  You can add rocks to the basin, and to the wire on top of the wire in the pond liner. This way you get two good layers to your birdbath. Rocks and natural items can be added to hide any of the wire or support as well.

Add a tree branch or plants for the birds to perch on while they wait to bathe. This seems unimportant, but after dad told me to do this I started seeing more birds. I believe it gives them a feeling of safety.

That’s pretty much it. We have set up the yard to give birds lots of cover and opportunities to feed as well.  Hopefully these tips help out with your birdbath design.

Cardinal photos used with permission of Cindy Barnes Reed Photography. @cindybarnesreed on instagram.

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Caring for my special needs dog. Part 2: Bedding and comfort.

For the second post on my experience in taking care of my partially-paralyzed dog, I wanted to talk about bedding and keeping her comfortable in general.

Here’s a quick catch-up if you haven’t read the first post. For several years I took care of my lab mix dog who was fighting an unidentified illness that eventually took away all of her mobility.  She has since passed away, but we thought these tips might help if you are facing a similar dilemma.

Please note that this is information meant to assist in your day-to-day life during your dogs treatment. Talk about what you see here with your vet. I make no medical claims, only what seemed to work for us in our specific situation.

As we start talking about bedding and comfort, I should point out that as Moon Pie’s illness progressed, she slowly lost her mobility. It seemed to come in waves:

1. At first her back leg seemed a little off like it was sprained or hurt.

2. After about a year it started to effect her other leg, and at times her back end would fall from under her – both legs would loose support.

3. Eventually she lost control and feeling in her back legs, at this time she lost control of her bladder and bowels, which will be subject for another post.

4. Lastly, her illness spread and she lost most movement of her front legs.

I’ll admit, that list makes it seem like a horrible life for her, and the decision to put her down, or not, was a dilemma I thought about often. Our family has always had dogs, and we have had to put several down. Moon Pie, even up to the weekend that she passed, was so full of life compared to the “sick” dogs. She never lost her spunk or her interest in food, playing with the dogs, or sitting outside watching squirrels and birds in the trees. I told her as long as she wanted to fight I would help her, which we did for several years.

So… let’s talk about comfort.

Once Moon Pie lost control of her back legs,  we really had to get involved. She had no interest in laying around all day, and wanted to be where the other dogs and I were.  If I lingered in another room too long, she would let out a very specific bark so we could move her, then she was happy.

Tip 1. Make multiple comfortable bedding spots for your dog. Living room, office, etc. The pup will feel vulnerable and will want to be near you. Keeping them close means you can also keep an eye on their needs a bit easier.

Tip 2. Keep bedding simple. Resist the urge to make a big fluffy bed with lots of blankets. We learned this early on.  Your dog will overheat – potentially causing hot spots, bed sores and for you to carry lots of water. Also, if they have an accident there’s more clean up. I used a folded comforter for her beds. Twin size comforters work well and are easy to wash. Small fleece throw blankets, especially the thin kind you can find at drug stores during the winter, were all we used to keep her warm as you can add as many as needed.

Tip 3. Pillows.  This really came into play after Moon Pie lost control of her back legs. We would use them to give her a little back support. Picture how a dog makes a circle and then lays down in a “C” shape. While in the “C”, she was stable, but if she was playing with the dogs she could easily roll onto her back and she would be unable to upright herself again. Tuck a pillow behind her back/shoulder blades to prevent this. Another HUGE pro of keeping her in this position was that she could easily feed herself and drink as she wanted. Just make sure there is a little water bowl within reach and you’re set.

Tip 4. Plan your bed (if the pup is incontinent).  This became an art at our house. Its a trick finding the right combo that will keep your dog warm, but not too hot, and will accommodate accidents. Below is the layout I found most useful. Please ignore the horrible sketches.

  • Start by building up the section that your dog will lay on. It helps if there is an incline, with the head higher than the rear.
  • Put a pee pad at the edge of the bed, making sure just a bit of it sits under the dogs behind, with the rest sitting at a lower level. The idea is that waste will go to the lower level, and away from the dog, which is healthier for them.
  • Do not leave the pee pad too far under the dog. Urine can wick all over the pad, and moisture is all kinds of bad news in this situation. You want it to be tucked under the pup just enough to catch urine. Even in the sketch the pee pad goes under the pups butt a little too far. You will get the hang of it though.

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Tip 5. If you can do it, get yourself an elevated, mesh dog bed like a Coolaroo, which was one of the best buys I made during this time. It is soft, yet gives support. It elevates the pup, which makes them easier to work with. Its breathable. Its easy to clean. It keeps them from over heating. Seriously get one of these if you can. I even used it for expressing her bladder. (If you are doing this, it helps if you elevate one side of the bed, the head side,  about 4 inches higher than its made. We drilled holes into blocks of wood. This way gravity is working in your favor.)

That’s it for now. I’m not going to lie – going through all of my notes has worn me out. Miss that turd.

 

 

Caring Part 2