The Saturday after Thanksgiving a pileated woodpecker made my day. For the first time in more than 20 years, I saw one of these crow-sized hammerheads at my suet feeder. It returned several times over a 30-minute span.
I can't explain why I had never seen one at the feeders before. They're common in the woods around my house; I see them almost every day. Maybe I just missed them when they visited the feeders in the past.
I credit Martha Sargent's homemade suet recipe that she shared with me years ago. I've printed it many times, and every fall I get requests to reprint it from readers who have mislaid it.
Martha lives in Alabama, and her recipe is an all-season blend. It doesn't melt even on hot summer days. Most important, though, birds love it. Chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and all the woodpeckers appreciate this fatty, high-energy food.
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest and most common woodpeckers in North America. Recognize this friendly, black-and-white species by its completely white back. Only the larger hairy woodpecker (9 inches vs. 7 inches in length), which inhabits deeper woodlands, shares this diagnostic feature. Hairies also have longer, heavier bills than downies. The sex of both species can be determined by a patch of red on the nape. Males have it; females do not.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are the other common species that frequents feeders. They have narrow black and white bars across the back, a white rump, white wing patches in flight, and red on the head. The entire top of the male's head is red, from the base of the bill to the base of the neck. Females only have a red nape. And despite the name, the belly is only tinged with an anemic rosy wash. Don't expect a bright red belly.
Compared to the more common downy woodpecker, red-bellies are chunkier and about 10 inches long. And like most woodpeckers, they bounce through the air in an easy undulating flight.
The woodpecker suet recipe is simple.
Martha Sargent's No-melt Peanut Butter Suet
1 cup crunchy peanut butter (use a cheap generic type)
2 cups quick-cooking oats
2 cups cornmeal