Monday, 5 December 2011

Elephant No. 64: Suet Cake

A few days ago, my friend Ken suggested I try making a suet cake elephant for the wild birds that come to my garden.

Suet cakes normally come in the form of bells, squares and discs, and contain ingredients such as seeds, nuts, chunks of dried fruit and, of course, suet. Although it seems counterintuitive to feed birds the beef and pork fat contained in suet, it's actually quite important to their winter diet. The fat is a substitute for the insects birds eat in the warmer months, and helps keep them warm and active throughout the winter.

I was going to make a suet cake from scratch, but suet appears to be rather hard to find these days. There were alternate recipes suggesting lard and shortening, but these also warned that the resulting suet cake would be soft and not hold together very well in warmer winter weather. It would also have to be poured into a mould, and I don't have an elephant mould big enough.

Instead, I opted to simply reshape a pair of existing suet cakes. I bought these two at the grocery store. The disc is made primarily of suet, so it's somewhat more firm; the square has mostly lard and shortening, so it's a bit nasty to handle.

The first thing I did was shape the disc by carving off a small slice, then cutting around the edge to get a piece I could use for the trunk.

Once that was done, I scooped out the softer material in the square container and mushed it all over the underlying disc shape. This is something that could really only be done by hand, and it has to be done mostly in one go. I thought about taking some photos as I went along, but it would have required that I scrub my hands every few minutes.

When I was more or less happy with the shape, I added some sunflower seeds for an eye—also Ken's suggestion.

I saved the netting from the disc to hang the finished product—mostly because the suet cage hasn't yet been made that can hold this particular animal. I was a bit surprised at how well it held together when I slid it inside the netting, because it was quite soft from being handled. It's probably a good idea to freeze it overnight before hanging it outside.

It's going to be interesting—and perhaps a little tragic—to see how the birds go about pecking this elephant to bits.

Elephant Lore of the Day
African elephants are often seen with small grey birds on their backs. These particular birds are oxpeckers, and ride on many other large animals as well.

It was originally believed that oxpeckers were primarily beneficial, because they eat large numbers of ticks, botfly larvae and other parasites—as many as 12,000 tick larvae a day. It has recently been discovered, however, that although they do eat unwelcome parasites, oxpeckers will also open new wounds to drink the blood of their animal hosts.

Elephants are not particularly fond of the birds—although oxpeckers do benefit elephants by warning them of approaching predators.

Red-billed oxpecker on elephant.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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