All About Suet for Birds

northern flicker on suet feeder
Northern flicker

Fall offers lots of fantastic bird-watching opportunities. Leaves begin to drop, making it easier to see treetop visitors, and it’s finally cool enough to set out a favorite treat: suet for birds. A high-fat, protein-packed offering, it attracts both insect-eating species and omnivores, all while providing the perfect amount of calories to help birds flourish in colder weather.

“At different times of the year, birds need different nutrients,” says Ken Elkins, the community conservation manager for Audubon Connecticut. “Suet can start to be valuable to birds in the fall, not just the winter.”

And while suet is tantalizing for birds, it’s great for bird-watchers, too, as it brings new species to your backyard for a closer look. “Suet is one of those feeding experiences where it keeps them there, in view, a little longer,” Ken says.

Ken notes that the suet you serve won’t replace a large part of a bird’s diet; the birds are still going to find a lot of natural food around them. He says, “If you are really trying to attract a diverse group of birds, think about having plants in your backyard to provide the foods they need throughout the season and to attract more insects.”

Get the answers to commonly asked questions about serving suet for birds.

1. What Is Suet for Birds?

From a technical perspective, suet is specifically the raw fat around kidneys and loins, mostly in beef. Because it’s high in fat, it gives birds lots of energy, which is especially helpful in cold weather. While suet is typically made from rendered animal fat, some bird food suppliers make plant-based options with vegetable shortening or nut butters. The fats are mixed with seeds, oats, fruits, mealworms and more—all ingredients you can try out in your own recipe at home.

Check out proven tips for attracting birds with suet.

2. What Are Suet Cakes for Birds?

Bnbbyc19 Nancy Brown
Eastern bluebird eating dried mealworm suet cake 

Suet cakes are actually what most people refer to as suet. They are square shaped blocks usually made up of a mixture of things, including suet (or rendered beef fat) as a primary ingredient. Other ingredients in suet might include peanut butter, peanuts, birdseed and cracked corn.

Learn how to make birdseed suet cupcakes.

3. Should I Make Suet or Buy It?

rose-breasted grosbeak at suet feeder
Rose-breasted grosbeak eating suet

Whether you make your own or buy it from a store is up to you. When buying suet cakes from the store, shop local or from family-based suppliers so you can ask questions regarding their ingredients and melting temperatures. Be sure to also check the ingredients for palm oil, as palm oil plantations cause deforestation, affecting wild birds and other wildlife globally.

Of course, suet should have actual suet (or rendered beef fat) listed as an ingredient. If you want to make your own, hit up your local butcher shop and ask them to buy the suet. It should be fairly inexpensive, and you can be sure it’s what you need for the birds.

Great suet is all about the right consistency. A good base is 1 cup of suet and 1 cup of peanut butter. (It’s a myth that birds will choke on peanut butter, so don’t hesitate to include it!) Melt over low heat, and mix in 1/2-cup of cornmeal and 1/4-cup of oats. Next, add 1/4-cup of items like birdseed, nuts or berries. Freeze in muffin tins or small containers until you’re ready to use it. Check out more homemade suet recipes.

4. What Is the Best Way to Serve Suet to Birds?

suet for birds
Pileated woodpecker eating from a suet cage feeder

In the simplest form, you can just smear suet onto a branch or a hollowed log—no special feeder required. Another option is a cage feeder, which you can pick up for a few bucks. This definitely does the trick without spending a lot of money. Finally, if you want to maximize your real estate, look for a special suet feeder that will hold several suet cakes or blocks at once.

5. Where to Hang a Suet Feeder

When it comes to placement, hang suet in a visible area about 10 to 12 feet from shrubs, trees or another protected perching spot. For feeders with windows nearby, remember to place the suet either within 3 feet of the glass or farther than 30 feet away to keep birds safe from potential collisions. Also, think about what animals live in your neighborhood before you decide where to place your feeders full of homemade goodness.

Check out the 10 types of bird feeders you need in your backyard.

6. What Birds Eat Suet?

You can attract a wide range of birds that eat suet, including chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, thrushes, creepers, thrashers, jays, and nearly all woodpeckers, including flickers. Even if you haven’t seen these birds in other seasons, try again in fall and winter. You’ll likely attract new visitors.

Discover the 4 foods you should feed birds in winter.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red headed woodpecker feeds on suet

Among the brightest suet lovers on the block, red headed woodpeckers are medium-sized birds and flaunt a completely crimson head. They are most likely to visit feeders in winter and are drawn to oak, beech and other trees that produce nuts and seeds.

Check out the best foods for woodpeckers.

Canada Jay

canada Jay

Known as camp robbers because of their habit of nabbing food scraps from campsites, fluffy Canada jays are found in northern forests across the United States and are fearless and inquisitive. The robin-sized bird caches extra food in crevices to survive cold climates, and may even rear its chicks in winter.

Try out the best bird feeders for blue jays.

Northern Cardinal

indigo bunting and cardinal
Cardinal and indigo bunting sharing the suet

These sizable songbirds have short, thick bills, and both sexes have prominent crests. Bright red males and muted brown females are found in most areas east of the Rocky Mountains and parts of the Southwest. Cardinals often look as if they’re crouched over when sitting, pointing their tail feathers downward.

Follow these proven ways to attract northern cardinals.

Downy Woodpecker

downy woodpecker on suet feeder

The smallest woodpecker in North America, adult downies can weigh less than an ounce. Found across the country in open woodlands, deciduous woods and even the suburbs, these black-and-white checkered creatures are often members of mixed-species flocks.

Tufted Titmouse

tufted titmouse

This stout bird features a pointed crest, a rounded bill, large black eyes and a gray body. Spot titmice in the eastern U.S. near open tree canopies, city parks and backyards—and watch as they whack large seeds on hard surfaces.

Find out how to attract titmice to visit your backyard.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper Bird on a tree

Blending into bark across the U.S., the brown and tan streaked creepers keep their white bellies hidden as they spiral upward around tree trunks. Smaller than a sparrow, brown creepers have slim frames, long tails with stiff tips, and slender, curved beaks. To attract them, smear suet on a tree trunk.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

nuthatch vs chickadee

These compact creatures sport sharp features and short appendages. The plump blue-gray birds may appear to have almost no neck under their black and-white patterned heads. Find red-breasted nuthatches throughout the U.S. along tree limbs, creeping in all directions.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Bnbbyc16 Gary Robinette 001

Spot these tiny, energetic birds foraging in a frantic fashion through shrubs and trees across North America. At only 3 or 4 inches long, ruby-crowned kinglets are known for their minuscule green-gray frames, constantly flicking wings, and white eye rings and bars.

7. Will Other Wildlife Eat Suet?

Keep in mind that birds aren’t the only creatures that love suet. The strong-smelling fat in suet attracts mammals, so keep an eye out for local critters such as squirrels, raccoons, rats, skunks, deer or bears. Consider installing a baffle to deter smaller animals. 

Here’s our best tips for squirrel-proof bird feeders.

8. Can You Feed Suet in Warm Weather?

Raw suet turns rancid quickly in warm weather. It melts when the temperature rises above 70 degrees and might stick to birds’ feathers. Gooey feathers are dangerous, so raw suet should be served only during the colder months. Cornmeal and peanut butter can also go rancid quicker, Ken says. He also warns that nut butters in high heat can be too sticky for birds’ beaks. Consider alternatives like no-melt suet nuggets or a peanut feeder.

If a bird that looks sick shows up at your feeder, it may cause some concern. Don’t worry, though. As long as you keep your feeders and bird baths clean, this isn’t something you need to obsess about. Even more reassuring is that few of the common backyard bird diseases are passed on to people directly. For example, West Nile virus—a disease that occurs often in the crow family, including jays and magpies—is carried to people by mosquitoes, not by birds. In order for people to get this disease, a mosquito that has bitten a bird with the virus must then bite a human.

Here are the five most common backyard bird diseases that have been studied extensively at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Plus, we have an update on a new mystery illness that affected birds in certain regions of the U.S. There is good news to share—cases of this mystery bird disease are no longer being reported. All 11 states that had issued do-not-feed recommendations have now lifted their restrictions, or they were allowed to expire. This means you can safely start feeding birds in your yard again.

To learn more about these bird diseases, contact the National Wildlife Health Center.

New Mystery Bird Illness

In April 2021, people in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. began noticing songbirds suffering and then dying from strange symptoms.

Many of these birds had swollen eyes, often with a crusty discharge, and some appeared to be blinded. Their nervous systems were also affected. The birds were moving unsteadily, shaking their heads, drooping their wings, or appearing disoriented. Most of the birds showing the symptoms at first were among the larger songbirds, especially common grackles, blue jays, European starlings and American robins. The ailment was also observed in several other species, including house sparrows, northern cardinals, gray catbirds, Carolina wrens and northern flickers. Most of the affected birds were juveniles, although some adults were affected, too.

Birds with these symptoms were first observed around Washington, D.C., and by late May they were being reported widely in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Later, birds suffering from the same ailment were found in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana, and possibly in other states. Hundreds of birds have died from this affliction. Many were sent to various wildlife laboratories for analysis.

What Caused This Mystery Bird Illness?

As of September 2021, a cause of this bird disease has not been determined. Some of the dead birds have been tested for bird flu and West Nile virus, and the results have been negative. As several scientists have pointed out, the ailment has been concentrated in areas where “Brood X” periodical cicadas had a big emergence this spring. The younger stages of these cicadas had spent years tunneling underground. They could have absorbed various toxins, or they could have been infected with some kind of fungus. These contaminants could have been passed on to any birds that ate the cicadas—and juvenile birds would be more at risk from these toxins than adults. It’s a plausible theory, but so far there’s no confirmation. And some birds apparently suffering from this condition have been found in areas where no Brood X cicadas emerged.

What You Should Do

The biggest question is whether this ailment is contagious. So far we don’t know, so it’s best to continue to be cautious and keep cleaning your feeders regularly. If you find birds suffering or dying from these symptoms, don’t pick them up unless you’re wearing rubber gloves. Don’t take them to a wildlife rehab center without calling first to make sure they are prepared to receive such birds. Call your state wildlife agency, because most of these wildlife departments are keeping track of reports.

If birds with these symptoms are again found near where you live, most scientists and wildlife professionals agree that it’s best to take down all bird feeders and bird baths right away. Wash them thoroughly with a 10% bleach solution, rinse them very well, and keep them down for at least a couple of weeks. If this mysterious ailment is contagious, feeders and baths would be prime areas for it to spread from one bird to another. We shouldn’t take that chance. Birds can find abundant natural food, which would be the safer option in this unusual situation.

House Finch Disease

house finch disease, bird diseases
Conjunctivitis is also known as house finch disease

Birds infected with this disease (also called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis) appear to have red, swollen, runny or crusty eyes. While some sick birds recover, many die from starvation, exposure or predation. This bird disease can also spread to the American goldfinch and other finches. As birds flock together at feeders, transmission of the disease becomes more likely.

Avian Pox

There are two forms of avian pox. In the more common form, wart-like growths appear on the featherless areas of the body, such as around the eye, base of the bill, the legs and feet. In the second form, plaques develop on the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, trachea and lungs, resulting in impaired breathing and feeding. The virus can be spread by direct contact with infected birds or contaminated feeders, or by ingestion of contaminated food or water.

Psst—check out 9 foods you should never feed to birds.

Aspergillosis

This is a fungal bird disease that affects the respiratory system of birds. External symptoms include difficulty in breathing, emaciation and increased thirst. Birds can also have difficulty walking. When their eyes are infected, there may be a white opacity in one or both eyes, accompanied by a discharge. Sick birds becomes infected by the ingestion or inhalation of mold spores from contaminated foods. One potential source is birdseed that has been damp for too long. If you have stored bird seed that seems wet or moldy, it’s better to throw it away than to risk feeding it to birds.

Salmonella

This is a relatively common cause of mortality in feeder birds, but the symptoms are not always obvious. Sick birds from salmonella bacteria may appear thin, fluffed up and depressed and may have pasted vents and swollen eyelids. They are often lethargic and easy to approach. Birds that are sick enough to show symptoms usually die within a few days. Salmonella is primarily transmitted by fecal contamination of food and water by birds. But salmonella also can be transmitted to humans who handle infected birds, so always wear gloves when picking up sick or dead individuals, and wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning feeders.

Trichomoniasis

This bird disease most commonly affects pigeons, doves and the raptors that feed on them. It is characterized by raised lesions in the mouth, esophagus and crop. Infected birds can contaminate birdbaths with their oral secretions, which can in turn expose many other birds to the disease.

What About Bald Birds?

bird diseases
Bald birds like cardinals or blue jays at your feeder are no cause for alarm, but other symptoms can be indicators of bird diseases.

This is one fairly common sight that’s not caused by disease. The most noticeable, sickly-looking birds are northern cardinals and blue jays whose head feathers have fallen out, exposing bare black skin. Bird diseases aren’t to blame here – instead it’s a parasite. The affected birds usually survive and grow back their head feathers in a few weeks.

But, believe it or not, the bald look is sometimes caused by environmental factors like nutritional deficiencies or feather mites, but it’s most commonly the result of molting. To maintain their feathers for flight and to keep them water resistant and insulating, birds regularly replace their plumage with new feathers in the process called molt. In some birds, the head molt occasionally happens all at once.

Help Fight Bird Diseases

  • If you find a diseased bird, it’s best to report it to your state or local wildlife agency.
  • If you find a bird that appears to have died of one of these bird diseases, place it in a double plastic bag and into the garbage while wearing gloves.
  • Always clean your feeders often. If sick birds visit, minimize the risk of infecting other birds by cleaning the area quickly and thoroughly. You may need to take down your feeders for a week or so. This will encourage the sick birds to leave the area. Learn how to clean hummingbird feeders.

Close up shot of hands working with soil and flowers

Can You Reuse Potting Soil?

“Can potting soil be reused, or does it need to be thrown away after a plant is removed?” asks Bob Nelson of Buffalo, New York.

Consider using fresh potting soil in your annual planters each year. This helps avoid future pest problems caused by insect or disease populations that may be building in the soil. Try composting the soil as well as the plant. Soil contains wonderful microorganisms that help with decomposition. It’s a great way to recycle potting mix back into the landscape.

Don’t use soil directly from the garden. As tempting as it is to dig up some backyard dirt and throw it into a container, potted plants need drainage. Use a high-quality potting mix or potting soil when planting containers. The best blends are designed to stay slightly moist while allowing excess water to drain. This keeps the mix light and airy so plants receive more oxygen. Look for potting mixes that have vermiculite, peat moss, compost and perlite.

If your container doesn’t have drainage holes on the bottom, drill a few holes yourself.

Check out the best potting soil for every type of plant.

Bugs in Potting Soil

“When I got out my pots from last fall, tons of little bugs with wings covered the old soil. Can I reuse the potting soil?” asks Suzanne Foote of Cayuga, New York.

In general it’s best not to save and reuse potting soil when the mix or plants are infested with insects or infected with disease. So discard that soil and clean the pots before you use them again.

If you don’t want to discard potting soil each year for container plants, there is a valid and affordable alternative. Simply work in a little compost from year to year to improve the soil structure and provide added nutrients. But if you’re growing a rare or cherished plant you’d hate to lose to disease, it’s worth the investment to change the potting soil annually.

Follow these 5 steps for preparing a garden for spring.

How to Clean Garden Planters

To clean your planters, dip each pot in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Then rinse the pots in clear water and they’ll be ready for fresh soil and new plants!

Next, check out easy plants you can grow in containers.

Cooper’s Hawk vs Sharp Shinned Hawk: How to Tell the Difference

Cooper's hawk
Juvenile Cooper’s hawk

Identifying backyard hawks can be quite the challenge. So many times they are just a blur of a bird quickly making a pass through your feeding station in pursuit of a meal. If you do happen to get a decent look at the hawk, or if it decides to perch in the open long enough for you to study it, you can likely identify the species. Here are some key features to look for when trying to tell the difference between a cooper’s hawk vs a sharp shinned hawk.

The Cooper’s hawk is a member of the accipiter group. It has relatively short wings—reaching only to the base of the tail—and a long tail that is broadly rounded at the tip. The most similar bird would be the sharp-shinned hawk, but that’s a smaller species with a more square-tipped tail and a smaller head. The sharpie also has pencil-thin legs, not like the strong, robust legs on the Cooper’s.

cooper's hawk vs sharp shinned hawk
Juvenile sharp shinned hawk

Adults Cooper’s hawks are blue-gray above and pale reddish on the chest, but for about their first year of life, the young birds are brown, with dark stripes on a white chest. (Young sharp-shinned hawks are very similar to young Cooper’s, but their dark stripes below tend to be wider, more blurry and more reddish brown.) Cooper’s hawks are curious, alert birds that often visit cities and towns, where they investigate yards and perch close to houses. Male Cooper’s hawks are significantly smaller than their female mates.

The sharp-shinned hawk is amazingly strong for its size. Although the sharp shinned isn’t much bigger than a blue jay or mourning dove, it’s a powerful little predator, pursuing prey in rapid bursts of flight. Recognizable field marks include a small but deeply hooked bill, and black bands across a gray square-tipped tail.

Sharp Shinned Hawk

Cooper's Hawk vs Sharp-Shinned Hawk I

Head Size

Smaller, more rounded head that barely sticks out when in flight.

Head Color

Gray beginning on top of the head and continuing down through the neck feathers.

Legs

Long and very thin.

Tail

Tail is more square and uniform.

Range

Sharp shinned hawks occur farther north vs Cooper’s hawks. They stay year-round in parts of the Northwest and the Northeast, and are seen in most of the U.S. during the nonbreeding season. This species is more commonly seen during migration or hunting at bird feeders during the winter months. They prefer dense cover and are less likely to perch in the open.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk vs sharp shinned hawk

Head Size

Proportional head that’s easy to see in flight.

Head Color

Dark cap with lighter coloring on the neck.

Legs

Thicker with a shorter appearance.

Tail

The tail is long and slender. Tail feathers create a rounded look, with middle ones longer than the outer ones.

Range

Cooper’s hawks occur throughout the continental United States during most of the year. They are a very common sight in many backyards and have adapted very nicely to hunting for prey at bird feeders. In general, if you have bird feeders, you’ve probably had this species in your yard.

Next, learn how to tell the difference between bald eagles and golden eagles.

deer resistant plants

Tips to Deer-Proof Your Garden

Deer have gone to extremes. They’ve made themselves at home in suburbia and even in towns. Their numbers are up—and so is the level of damage to gardens. Haircut sweepings are no longer effective, because today’s deer are accustomed to the human scent. Even stinky sprays, homemade or commercial, may not work. Hanging wind chimes or foil pie plates in hopes of scaring them away? Bambi and his pals will only laugh. Instead, consult lists of the most deer resistant plants, and avoid or remove plants that attract deer, such as tulips, pansies, hostas, arborvitae and yew. There’s no sense in actively tempting deer to visit your yard!

But don’t be tricked into a false sense of security. “No plant is truly deer-proof,” says Brooke Maslo, an assistant extension specialist in wildlife ecology at Rutgers University. When deer are hungry, especially in fall and winter, any plant in your yard may become dinner. Contact your local extension office for a list of what deer do and don’t find appealing.

Check out the best deer resistant bulbs for spring blooms.

deer deterrents

Try Deer Deterrents

Deterrents are worth a try, and are best used before pests are a problem. At the low end of cost and effort, hang bars of strong-scented soap or use homemade garlic spray. Apply blood meal or deer repellent granules around plants, or spray them with commercial products to make them smell and taste bad. The measures may also deter rabbits, another common backyard pest. Motion-activated water sprays, lights and other gadgets are worth a try, too. Know that what works in one garden may not work in another. And when food gets scarce, all bets are off. Another solution is planting just out of reach. Plant flowers and veggies in containers on a porch or deck, away from deer and rabbits. Keep pots away from railings and steps, as deer stand on their hind feet to browse.

An energetic, barking dog is also a fantastic ally. “Since my dog passed away, the deer readily hop the yard fence to clear out my bird feeders,” reports Brooke, ruefully. “And on some mornings, I have a doe asleep in the yard.” Psst—pet owners should avoid these plants that aren’t safe for dogs.

The only real way to avoid deer altogether is an 8-foot-tall fence of plastic-net deer fencing around your vegetable garden or yard. “The best advice I can give is to support deer management efforts on a larger scale,” says Brooke. “Reducing local populations alleviates landscape damage more effectively than any backyard-scale attempt.” Until fertility control or special hunting regulations prove successful, be ready to go on the defensive—and take comfort in knowing you’re not alone.

Problems with squirrels? Check out the best squirrel-proof bird feeders.

Ultrasonic Deer Repeller

“Is there any data to prove that ultrasonic deer repellents are actually effective?” asks Gordon Kauffman of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.

You are right to be skeptical,” writes garden expert Melinda Myers. “According to the University of Vermont, these ultrasonic devices are marketed to repel deer by emitting sounds above 20 kilohertz—which animals, but not humans, are supposed to be able to hear. Research found that deer hear at a different wavelength than that emitted by the ultrasonic repellent, so these products have not been proved to be effective at discouraging them.”

Deer-Resistant Plants to Grow

Even foraging Bambis might turn up their noses at these plants.

peony, deer resistant plants
Pink peony blooms

Peony

Paeonia lactiflora, Zones 3 to 8

You’ll eat up the showy, fragrant blooms of this classic beauty, but deer and rabbits won’t. With tons of varieties and an array of flower forms and colors, peonies offer a lot to love. “It’s an old-fashioned, fabulous flower that gives more than it takes,” says Kathleen Gagan, owner of Peony’s Envy nursery in Bernardsville, New Jersey. Plant peonies in your flower garden in fall.

Wood Sage

Salvia x sylvestris, Zones 4 to 8

Sometimes called meadow sage, this perennial salvia has spikes of vibrant violet-blue flowers. Not only is it a deer resistant plant, but it’s also drought tolerant once established, is at home in the dry soils of rock gardens and is loved by hummingbirds.

butterfly on coneflower
Red admiral on a coneflower

Coneflower

Echinacea species, Zones 3 to 9

Daisy-like petals burst from this low-maintenance perennial that comes in a range of colors. Plant pretty disease and deer resistant coneflower in a sunny spot with well-draining soil.

winter glow bergenia
Winter glow bergenia

Bergenia

Bergenia crassifolia, Zones 3 to 8

Its nickname, pigsqueak, might be animal-inspired (its leaves squeak when rubbed), but most deer and rabbits say “no, thank you.” In spring, stems of pink flowers rise above large, glossy leaves. Often used as a shady ground cover, it thrives in dry soil and drought.

cleome
Spiderflower or cleome

Cleome

Cleome Hassleriana, Annual

Because of its spiderlike flowers, cleome—which is also commonly called spiderflower—is a nearly unmistakable annual in a sunny garden. It grows quickly from seed, towering up to 4 or 5 feet, and offers fragrant pink, lavender, purple or white bicolor flowers. A pollinator favorite, it handles drought, and animals leave the hairy, sticky stems alone.

Top 10 Purple Plants for Your Flower Garden
Blooming catmint

Catmint

Nepeta species, Zones 3 to 9

Catmints are easy to grow, long-blooming, heat-tolerant and deer resistant plants. After the flowers fade, shear off the spent blooms and about a third of the stalk for a second round. Check out more purple flowering plants to grow in your garden.

Wg Heucherellagold Zebra
Gold zebra foamy bells

Gold Zebra Foamy Bells

Heucherella, Zones 4 to 9

Gold Zebra’s yellow and green leaves are accented with brilliant gold and blood-red centers. This deer resistant plant has showy white flowers that attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other helpful pollinators.

Salvia Rockin Blue Suede Shoes 0
Rockin’ Blue Suede Shoes salvia

Rockin’ Blue Suede Shoes Salvia

Salvia Hybrid ‘BBSAL01301’, Annual OR Zones 9 to 11

It’s both airy, with spikes of blue-purple blooms, yet substantial at 40 inches tall and 30 inches wide. The flower color is delightfully closer to blue than purple. Hummingbirds, butterflies and pollinators can’t get enough of this deer resistant plant.

Brunnera Jack Of Diamonds Apj17 2

Jack of Diamonds Heartleaf Brunnera

Brunnera Macrophylla ‘Jack of Diamonds’, Zones 3 to 8

If you adored Jack Frost brunnera for its green and silver heart-shaped leaves, you’ll flip for the larger 9- to 10-inch wide foliage of this shade perennial. Deer give it a wide berth. Bees find an early nectar source in the tiny blue spring flowers.

Cardinal flower and hummingbird
Cardinal flower and ruby-throated hummingbird

Cardinal Flower

Lobelia cardinalis, Zones 3 to 9

Eye-catching stalks of vibrant scarlet, white or red flowers pop in any summer garden from July to September. Cardinal flower blooms attract butterflies and hummingbirds, while rabbits and deer usually avoid the plant.

Wg amsonia hubrichtii

Arkansas Blue Star

Amsonia Hubrichtii, Zones 4 to 9

Prepare to be enchanted by this low-maintenance, native perennial. In fall, its feathery green foliage becomes blazing gold-yellow. Deer avoid it, while butterflies and bees love its beautiful, sky blue blooms.

swamp milkweed
Monarch butterfly and caterpillar feeding on swamp milkweed

Swamp Milkweed

Asclepias Incarnata, Zones 3 to 6

Native to swamps and wet meadows, this butterfly and hummingbird magnet also tolerates dry soil. The 3- to 4-foot tall plants are topped with fragrant showy pink to mauve flowers in mid to late summer. You’ll find both monarch and queen butterfly caterpillars munching on the leaves, while deer tend to leave it be. Check out the ultimate guide to growing milkweed for monarch butterflies.

weigela proven winners
Spilled Wine weigela

Weigela

Weigela florida, Zones 4 to 8

This large, dense flowering shrub produces bunches of blooms in spring. Traditionally, the pink flowers may reappear in summer, but new cultivars are available in many different shades and produce more blooms throughout summer and fall. Weigela tolerates clay soil, and deer generally avoid it.

Next, learn how to create the ultimate backyard wildlife habitat.

Full Frame View of Assorted Chrysanthemums

The star of every autumn display has got to be those lush, gorgeous mums in harvest shades of yellow, burgundy and orange, or pretty pinks, purples and whites. Here’s how to care for chrysanthemums, plus how to choose the best mums to add color to your fall garden.

Are Chrysanthemums Annuals or Perennials?

You’ll find two basic groups of mums for sale at the garden center. Florist mums are usually grown and sold as an annual or holiday plant. Hardier garden mums are used as perennials and can be planted directly into the soil. Learn the difference between annuals and perennials.

If you picked up your mums from the fall display at the corner store or supermarket, it’s probably a florist mum. They’re bred to be beautiful but won’t survive the winter.

Want hardy garden mums for your perennial garden? Your best bet is to ask for them at a garden center or nursery.

Choose From Many Varieties

Hundreds of chrysanthemum varieties are found across the globe. The National Chrysanthemum Society divides them into 13 classes based on bloom form. Plant breeder Syngenta recently launched four new varieties of pot mums: Flagstaff Topaz, Houston Yellow, Paisley Park Purple Bicolor and Roseville Pink.

Plant Mums in the Best Location

In zones 5-9, plant perennial garden mums in a full-sun spot. Mums require at least five hours of sunlight per day. Well-draining soil is crucial to keep the plants healthy and ensure they’ll return next year. Work organic matter into poor or compacted soils before planting your mums.

Florist mums are perfect choices for containers, to make stunning fall displays near entryways and in window boxes. You can also plant these annual mums in your garden to bring end-of-season color after summer annuals are spent.

Psst—these are the best fall flowers that aren’t mums.

Give Chrysanthemums Some Space

Give mums some space so they won’t be crowded! If growing them in the garden, put plants in the ground 18 to 30 inches apart for best results. Chrysanthemums grow up to three feet tall and up to two feet wide. Their shallow roots cannot compete with other plants for moisture.

Plant Chrysanthemums Early in the Year

chrysanthemum flowers

Plant perennial mums in spring. This gives the plants the most time to establish root systems and gain strength before the first frost. Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball, adding rich soil to the hole as you plant your mum. Add a layer of mulch at the base of the plant to help keep the soil moist.

Water Perennial Mums Often

Keep your perennial mums well-watered; they need a lot of H2O and are susceptible to drying out. Psst—this is the best time of day to water plants.

How to Prune Chrysanthemums

To keep your mum plant short and full, pinch or prune to about 6 inches tall throughout early summer.Pruning the tips of branches will encourage growth; two or three times is usually enough, stopping by mid-summer so the plants will bloom in the fall.

Choose the Right Potted Annual Mums

Buy potted, annual mums that have lots of closed buds—these will bloom the longest for you (think: if they’re all blooming now—there won’t be much to look at later). Since they’re usually root-bound, transplant them to larger containers if possible. If you can’t re-pot them, set the pots on water-collecting saucers, so they stay hydrated longer after watering. And water often!

Check out the best fall shrubs for your garden.

Use Cut Chrysanthemums in Arrangements

chrysanthemum

In the morning when plants are hydrated, cut the stems at an angle. Remove leaves that will be underwater and immediately place stems in tepid water. Bring the stems in water (with plant food added if you’d like) to a cool, dark place to rest overnight; this conditioning will extend the life of the cut flowers. Then, arrange your mums in a decorative vase. Learn how to create a pumpkin bouquet.

Visit the Chrysanthemum Festival

This year’s Chrysanthemum Festival at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, will feature the unveiling of the Thousand Bloom Chrysanthemum. With more than 1,000 blooms on a single stem, it will be a spectacular sight to see. The festival runs Oct. 16 through Nov. 14, 2021. Fun fact: It takes almost two years and about 2,000 staff hours to nurture a single cutting into this blooming dome at Longwood Gardens.

A Peck's skipper crawls up the stalk of a blue flag iris.
A Peck’s skipper crawls up the stalk of a blue flag iris.

While admiring a stand of coneflowers in the garden you may be luck enough to notice a skipper butterfly. They’re small, shaped like a narrow triangle, and can be found crawling across a bloom. Leaning in closer and you’ll see that it has a fuzzy body and an orange-and-black wing pattern. When it zooms into the air, it whirls around in fast, erratic zigzags before resting on another flower.

Meet the Skipper Butterfly Family

Skippers belong to the order Lepidoptera, the great worldwide group that includes all the butterflies and moths. At one time they were considered a third category within the order, but most experts now agree that skippers are butterflies. They make up a distinctive family called the Hesperiidae.

Several features set the skippers apart from other butterflies. They have stout bodies, big heads and very rapid, erratic flight. Smaller than the average butterfly, most are not brightly colored. They wear tones of brownish orange, black or gray.

Skippers have one big thing going for them: variety. The United States and Canada have well over 200 species of skippers, which make up about a third of the butterfly diversity in the two countries. With so many kinds, it’s challenging to identify them. Some butterfly-watchers joke that they’re called skippers because it’s easier to just skip them! But a few are readily recognizable. It’s also easy to separate the skippers into two major groups: spread-wings and grass skippers.

Check out the best tips for watching and photographing butterflies.

Spread-Wing Skipper Butterflies

A southern cloudywing collecting nectar from a creeping phlox.
A southern cloudywing collecting nectar from a creeping phlox

Almost 80 species of spread-wing skippers are regularly found in the U.S. and Canada. Several others, including some with bright colors, rarely wander in from Mexico. Spread-wings usually sit with their wings stretched out to the sides (as the name suggests). They also hold them above their backs, the same postures as most typical butterflies. Mostly black, dark brown or gray, they usually have a wingspan of less than 2 inches. This makes them easy to overlook.

An attention-grabbing exception is the silver-spotted skipper, a common flier from coast to coast in the U.S. and parts of southern Canada. It has a wingspan of almost 2 inches and a golden stripe across each forewing, but its most identifying mark is a big silver-white spot on the underside of each hindwing. Caterpillars of silver-spotted skippers feed on locust trees, wisteria vines and many other plants, while adults visit a wide variety of flowers.

Another spread-wing seen all across the continent is the common checkered-skipper. It’s very small (with a wingspan of just over an inch). Bold black-and-white checkering separates it from other butterflies in yards and gardens. Adults fly fast and low, often landing on bare spots on the ground and visiting blooms such as clover or marigolds.

The long-tailed skipper, more of a southeastern specialty, is common from Texas to Maryland. Long tails on the hindwings and a blue-green sheen on its body and wing bases make it easily recognizable. More migratory than most skippers, it sometimes wanders north, even reaching New England and the Great Lakes.

Other groups such as duskywings, cloudywings or sootywings are much harder to identify, all being blackish with white dots. It’s usually enough of an accomplishment just to recognize them as spread-wing skippers.

Grass Skipper Butterflies

A fiery skipper visiting a verbena.
A fiery skipper visiting a verbena

Found everywhere from the Arctic to the tropics, grass skippers make up the most diverse group within the family. More than 120 species of grass skippers live throughout the U.S. and Canada, so at least a few kinds can be found in any given region.

Even among this varied throng, some things are consistent. Most species of grass skippers are small, and a few are truly tiny. The majority are some shade of orange with darker markings, but some are gray or black. Most have a narrow triangular appearance when sitting and they often adopt a posture called the jet-plane position. In this posture, they hold their hindwings flattened out to the sides and their forewings raised above their backs, which is reminiscent of the shape of certain fighter jets. It’s appropriate, too, because most grass skippers are amazingly fast fliers.

The grass skipper butterfly group got its name because the caterpillars use grasses or related plants as their host plants. Some are specialized to feed only on certain native grasses or sedges and, as a result, a few have become rare or endangered as the natives are crowded out. But others are more adaptable, feeding on a variety of grasses, and they continue to be common.

For example, Peck’s skippers are quite numerous across the northern and central states because Kentucky bluegrass and other widespread grasses are their host plants. The fiery skipper has adapted to feed on Bermuda grass, a popular turf grass that was introduced to North America from Africa (not Bermuda) in the 1750s. Now abundant across the South, fiery skippers wander northward every year, sometimes even being spotted around the Great Lakes.

A silver-spotted skipper sits on a coneflower.
A silver-spotted skipper butterfly sits on a coneflower

How to Attract a Skipper Butterfly

Flowers that attract other butterflies, such as coneflowers, asters, milkweeds and many more garden favorites, also attract adult skippers.

Host plants for spread-wing skipper caterpillars are so varied that the best general advice for most gardeners is to include as many native plants as possible in your landscaping. For the grass skipper group, try researching native grasses in your area and adding some as accent plants in your garden. A native plant nursery or your state or county extension service should be able to point you to some good choices.

Finally, it’s important to avoid using insecticides, which would kill skippers and other pollinators. Although they’re often overlooked, skippers are fascinating. Watch closely in your garden and you’re likely to discover that some of these little butterflies are regular visitors.

Next, check out 10 beautiful butterfly pictures you HAVE to see.

when to cut back ornamental grasses
Miscanthus grass

It’s easy to know when to cut back ornamental grass once you know the basics. It’s far more simple than the mowing, watering and fertilizing that may come to mind when thinking about traditional lawns. With ornamental grass, maintenance is far less intensive. Still, you can take actions to make sure your ornamental grasses sail into fall and make it through winter looking sharp.

Try these gorgeous ornamental grasses that look great throughout the seasons.

Watering and Fertilizing Ornamental Grasses

“Many homeowners like ornamental grasses because they are drought tolerant and are rarely bothered by pests,” says Iowa landscape designer Dori Hein. “They seldom need fertilizing either. Fertilizing ornamental grasses may actually cause them to flop over.”

But low maintenance does not equate to no maintenance. “Summer is the best time to keep an eye on watering needs, especially during the plant’s first year while it’s establishing roots,” Dori says. “I like to put down a natural mulch, too, because it mimics natural conditions and feeds the plants as it breaks down. Just don’t put the mulch up against the plant’s base because it can cause the crown to rot.”

When to Cut Back and Divide Ornamental Grasses

Once established, ornamental grasses have few needs. “The big thing with grasses is cutting them back once a year and dividing them once every four or five years,” Dori says.

Most gardeners leave their native grasses in place for winter interest and to provide food for birds. The time when you should cut back ornamental grasses is in late winter or early spring. Cut them back to within a few inches of the ground. “Cut back before the new shoots grow up through the old,” Dori adds, “or you’ll wind up cutting off the new growth, too.” In areas where wildfires are a seasonal concern, cut back grasses in fall to lessen the threat of fire.

You’ll know it’s time to divide grasses when a ring of living grass surrounds a dead center. “It’s easier to divide most grasses when they are still short from their post-winter haircut so there’s no foliage to get in the way,” Dori says. This is also the best time to divide grasses that flower in late summer and fall. Use a sharp spade or root saw and separate the living portion of the grass into smaller sections. Aim for sections that are a little bit bigger than a softball. Replant the sections, water well and enjoy through the seasons.

Ornamental Grass Benefits

Don’t miss out on these ornamental grass perks for your landscape.

  • Screen unsightly utilities and other items around the yard.
  • Add some privacy by rimming a patio with tall ornamental grasses.
  • Soften the harsher look of a structure, fence or corner.
  • Create a stage for plants to pop against the grassy backdrop.
  • Offer ambiance with the relaxing sights and sounds of grasses swaying in the wind.

What Do Male and Female Red Breasted Nuthatches Look Like?

red-breasted nuthatch, what do nuthatches eat
Male red breasted nuthatch

The male red breasted nuthatch boasts a rusty breast, blue-gray wings, black cap, white eyebrow, black eye line and white throat. Females have a lighter red breast and gray cap.

Female red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), Wasilla, Alaska, United States of America, North America
Female red breasted nuthatch in Wasilla, Alaska

There is so little difference in the appearance of male and female nuthatches that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between them. In general, the sexes look alike, and they all display a delightful upside-down performance when feeding. Learn all about the nuthatch family: bird acrobats.

What Do Red Breasted Nuthatches Eat

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Attract these acrobatic birds with a suet log feeder

Frequent visitors at bird feeders, the incredibly active 4 1/2-inch-long birds are quite at home there, snatching suet, peanuts, mealworms and other goodies with their thin bills. Adept climbers, they glide up and down trunks and branches in search of beetles, spiders, ants and other insects in warm months. The birds seem almost tame, as they’re more intent on eating than reacting to your presence. Which offers the opportunity to observe their interesting behaviors, says Nancy Castillo, author of the Zen Birdfeeder blog and owner of a Wild Birds Unlimited shop in Saratoga Springs, New York.

“Watch them take a seed or nut from the feeder, fly to a nearby tree, and tuck it away in the bark crevices,” Nancy says. “They may then hack away at it to open it or leave it for retrieval later.” In fact, the word nuthatch likely comes from a Middle English phrase meaning “nut hacker.”

red breasted nuthatch

To survive in winter when insects are difficult to find, the intelligent birds remember where they stored seeds and larvae to reclaim when they need them.

“Red breasted nuthatches like eating straight from my garden! I plant sunflowers for them, since they enjoy the seeds,” says Sue Gronholz  of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.

Discover the 4 foods nuthatches love to eat.

Nest and Eggs

Nuthatches are expanding their breeding range in some eastern states where habitats are suitable. Come spring, they fly north to breed within coniferous spruce, fir and hemlock forests or mixed forests that include aspens. The male droops his wings, raises his head and sways back and forth to attract a mate. Pairs might also fly side by side in long, exaggerated gliding patterns.

The female does most of the hard work for nesting, excavating a cavity in a dead or partially alive aspen, birch or conifer, sometimes using a natural opening. Uniquely skilled and crafty, red breasted nuthatches use flakes of bark to smear sticky pine and spruce resin at nest hole entrances, a tactic that may deter predators. They rarely use nest boxes.

She builds a nest of moss, fur, feathers, pine needles and other nesting materials, then lays five to eight white eggs with reddish brown spots. The eggs hatch in about 12 days, and both parents feed their young until the fledglings leave the nest 18 to 21 days later.

Learn how to identify bird eggs by color and size.

Red Breasted Nuthatch Call

red breasted nuthatch

Blaring sharp, tin horn-like calls no matter the weather, busy red-breasted nuthatches add life to even the chilliest days. To attract a female, the male sings a melody that’s drastically different from its typical harsh call.

Learn what a cardinal’s call sounds like.

Range Map and Migration

red-breasted nuthatch

Red breasted nuthatches are partly migratory. They live year-round in coniferous forests across southern Canada and the northern United States. Their range also includes mountainous regions of the Southwest and the eastern U.S. In fall, these birds fly south—sometimes reaching the Gulf Coast in September or October—searching for food. Every two or three years, their movement brings more nuthatches than usual, in a large migration called an irruption.

Rb Nuthatch Map Conv

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.