Suet - Lard vs Vegetable Shortening

Many birds love suet: lard and vegetable shortening treats. Woodpeckers and nuthatches find these quite tasty. But which is better for them - lard or vegetable shortening?

A few definitions first. The word lard used to apply just to pork fat, but is used in birding to refer to any animal fat. Vegetable shortening was a revolutarionary item in 1912 when Crisco introduced it - it was a way to get "fats" for cooking with from vegetables instead of animals or butter. With Crisco, the fat comes from applying pressure to soybean and cottonseed oil.

NuthatchWhile the word "suet" has come to mean a "general fatty meal for birds", there is actually a specific fat type called suet - this is the fat found around a cow's kidney.

Suet and Bird Health

First off, the whole reason you're feeding the birds is to supply them with energy. Birds burn energy at an amazing rate, with all the flying and food-hunting and nest-building they do. Fat is a high-energy food for birds, and part of why birds love sunflower seeds is that the seeds are fat-rich.

You therefore want to feed your birds something that is high in energy (high in fat) and easy to digest. Because of its chemical composition, lard is about twice as hard to digest as vegetable shortening is. So birds gain much more energy out of vegetable shortening than they do from animal fat.

Vegetable shortening is also healthier for the birds, because it is about a quarter unsaturated fatty acids - having lots of vitamins and essential nutrients in it. Lard has only trace amounts of these vitamins and nutrients.

Part of the reason vegetable shortenings were created in the early 1900s was that animal fats go rancid very quickly. Vegetable shortening was a winner with homemakers because it could last indefinitely without going bad. This is equally as important for birds, so that after a few days in the sun your suet offering does not end up poisoning your feathered friends.

If you can get your hands on actual suet - the beef-kidney-fat variety - this is a high protein fat and therefore a treat for birds. However, real suet has the same quick-rancid problems as other animal fats. If you want to use real suet for your birds, it is best to do so in the wintertime only.

Suet Recipe

Wild Bird Feeding Basics
Birding Tips and Photos
Birding Help Hints Tips and Information