The wildlife frequenting the front, back and side yards of our house are living testaments to the Franciscan sensibility that evolved over decades and blossomed, with the purchase of the tiny blue, semi-detached cottage into a habitat for anything Francis cares to send our way.
Standing witness to this phenomenon are three statues of St. Francis — two poured concrete ones that could have come straight from medieval Assisi but were picked up at a Toms River yard sale and one fiberglass fountain from K Mart.
I regard them as mute maitre d’s, welcoming every avian, mammalian or reptilian species native to central Jersey with the assurance that there are good eats at the Rogers house.
Brother Pete calls our frequent furry and feathered visitors the “outside kids” and enjoys tending to them and monitoring their behavior maybe even more than I do. He’s actually named some of the squirrels according to their identifying marks or ragged ears.
Ah, the life of a lake dweller!
With this winter’s unusually cold temperatures, we’re paying close attention to the bird feeders scattered around the yard, making sure there is plenty for our winter visitors to eat.
Lots of birds visit suet feeders for a high energy meal especially during the kind of cold weather we are experiencing now. In our diocese, the feathery visitors would likely include blue jays, nuthatches, sparrows, robins, wrens and woodpeckers.
In our backyard, the suet feeder is very popular with the downey woodpeckers — Morton, Roma and Robert — who visit regularly and the blue jays in year round residence.
Suet — raw beef fat — provides the fuel they need to keep warm and the extra energy that will help them for nest building in the spring.
You can buy commercial bird suet cakes and the cages to hang them in just about any supermarket. But if you have some time to spare and children who would enjoy the experience, why not make some suet cakes for the birds to enjoy.
If you buy fatty cuts of beef, you can trim the extra fat off yourself and store it in the freezer in freezer bags until you have about a pound. I usually buy the fat at the grocery store — ask the butchers for it.
To make the suet cakes, you’ll need a large, deep skillet to melt the suet in, some fine cheese cloth to strain it with and molds to pour it in. Some suet makers like to use clean tuna cans that they can set out on stationary feeders or slather it onto pine cones, some people just role it into balls and then role the balls in bird seed and set them out.
In our backyard the squirrels would make off with those items so I opt for plastic single sandwich containers which you can find at the dollar store or the supermarket. They make cakes just the right size to fit the inexpensive, re-useable hanging suet cages you can buy in the pet food sections of supermarkets and discount stores.
Directions: start with about one pound of raw suet cut into one-inch pieces. Put the suet into the pan and turn on low heat making sure not to overheat because overheated fat can catch fire. After the suet melts, pour it through the cheesecloth into a fine container. Discard the pieces that did not melt. Let the suet harden in the refrigerator or on the counter top, then melt it and let it harden again twice more.
These are necessary steps if the suet cakes are to harden properly.
After the suet has cooled but not solidified, stir in a variety of shelled, unsalted nuts, raisins, bread crumbs, seeds and even peanut butter and pour the mixture into your choice of molds to a depth of about 1 1/2 inches. Let the suet cool completely.
Makes several cakes which can be wrapped in wax paper and stored in the freezer until ready to use.