Fats and Oils

Hoping someone can give me simple and unambiguous advice - I know this has been discussed before, sorry, but the advice out there seems to be conflicting.

Making up winter feeding mixtures, the advice has always been that it's better to use hard, saturated animal fats such as lard and suet as they provide more, sustained energy. I understand that, and we don't need to go over it. But recently there seems to have been a strong message (perceived as?) going out from RSPB and others (and repeated back to me by a number of wildlife gardeners) that unsaturated fats, e.g. vegetable oils, are actually bad for birds - despite these originating from the same nuts and seeds that we feed regularly in the garden (sunflower, peanut) or that wild birds forage on in farmland (rape and flax seed etc.).

Doesn't sound right to me, and I can't help thinking that people are getting the wrong end of the stick. Surely it's better for us to use vegetable fats and oils, if that's what we have available, rather than putting out lower-energy mixtures of cereals, fruit etc. with no fat in them for fear of doing more harm than good? I should add that ours is a vegetarian household, so the birds are getting vegetable fats or nothing from us!

This is coming up again and again, particularly as some water companies are offering householders fat traps (to avoid problems with blocked drains) and encouraging their customers to use waste fats and oils to make fat balls. Is it really that bad to use leftover oil or waste from your roasting tin to feed the birds? What if it's only vegetable fats (as in our case as vegetarians)? RSPB advice suggests that oils and soft fats can be a problem if they get onto birds' feathers, but we always absorb ours into lots of grains/cereals, and mix with fruit, so it doesn't feel greasy when we put it out on our feeding tray.

It seems a waste to throw away a good resource, and in these economic conditions I can't necessarily justify going out and buying any more fat snacks specifically for bird feeding. On top of this, my personal politics are that it is morally dubious to be raising farm animals just to render them down into lard to feed wild animals. I don't want to do anything that's actually harmful though, so if it's really a problem I'll just stop feeding fat altogether and go back to offering nuts, grains, seeds and mealworms, and maintaining a wildlife-friendly garden where birds can forage for worms and insects.

Cheers for your comments and advice!

  • Thanks. I'd seen this, but it doesn't completely answer my question. When it says that vegetable oils are "unsuitable for birds", does that mean that oils in themselves are actually bad for their health (which is what people are now saying, but I don't accept) and that you're better to not offer any fat at all if you don't have suet or lard available?

    I accept that animal fats would be better, but since I don't have any and I'm trying to give birds as much energy as possible, isn't it better to use oil in my mix than to just feed fruit and grains and to send the oil to landfill/ down the drain?

    I'd be concerned about the birds smearing soft fats onto their feathers of course, but as I say I don't make big greasy fat balls like the sort you buy, it's a much more crumbly mix with a higher proportion of grains/ cereals/ fruit/ nuts, and where most of the fat is absorbed.

    Obviously we don't want to put out food that's detrimental to birds' health, and we do take great care with food quality and hygiene, but the worry with advice like this is that it all gets too difficult/ complicated and people stop bothering to winter feed at all. Where does that leave the birds?

  • I tend to use lard all the time but does that mean beef dripping should not be used (I don't mean dripping from the roast joint, rather the block you buy in the shop)  ??


    Regards, Hazel 

  • Ok, thanks Alan, was worried I had done the wrong thing !     I find Aldi mild cheddar is fairly cheap too for a large block,  ie.  800 gms. for £3.89


    Regards, Hazel 

  • Hi

    Doggie is correct. The trouble with soft fats is it could smear onto birds’ feathers and damage water proofing and insulating qualities. Fats from cooking can also cause this problem and can have a high level of bacteria and salt from the cooking process.

    Birds need clean, dry feathers to survive the cold and a layer of grease would make this virtually impossible.



    Why not check out the news from the wildlife enquiries team?

  • yes you're right...pastry would be fine to feed.



    Why not check out the news from the wildlife enquiries team?

  • Interesting to see the diet of birds. If we all ate like birds then Im sure we'll all be clinically obese! But obviously in the winter season they need to fatten up! But on the other spectrum they use up energy fast with all the flying around they do.

    When I make fatballs or suet I try and put myself in a birds head and think about what I will put in. Like Alan says, raw pastry made with lard is very popular. I add cheese, pink pellets, apple and sunflower hearts. The birds go mad for it so for me to use lard isn't a problem. But Im not vegetarian so that might be easier for me to use lard. But some food I make or buy certainly doesn't look appetising to me, but for the birds, its a feast :)

    Cheers, Jason

  • Hi bob...I have always used suet melted and mixed with seeds and nuts ...never had a problem as it solidifies when cool .... and I fill coconut shells with it .... cant help with oils .....but if you find the answer , I would be interested ....

  • Thanks doggie, Tom and everyone. So what I'm taking away from this is that, as I assumed, the oil isn't harmful in itself. The 'uncooked pastry' is similar to what I do already - mixing the oil in with leftover flour and oats or other cereals so that the oil is absorbed and not free on the surface to get onto birds' feathers, and then mixing it with seeds, leftover chopped fruit etc. I'll carry on doing that with a clear conscience!

    Even used oil is probably OK for me as a vegetarian as it's not mixed with meat juices (that might create a breeding ground for bacteria) and I don't generally add salt to my roasting dish - I know that salt is very very bad for birds!


  • They can indeed eat vegetable oil.  It won't do them any harm providing you're not doing something that's going to enable them to bathe in it!

    There's mention about cooking fat residue having bacteria and salt in it.

    That's not strictly speaking true.  IF you're not using salt in the cooking process or cooking say a cured meat (which might have been salted) then of course it's not going to have salt in it.

    The bacteria risk is also somewhat over-stated:  it's a potential risk because there will be cooked meat residue in with the fat and if that's left for a long time in ambient temperature then it has the potential for bacteria to grow.

    IF however you feed it in winter and so it's quickly eaten, say within the day, then it won't be a problem.

    I mix seeds and mealworm  with it and chill it in the fridge and smear it in crevices on a tree

    A bird in the hand can make an awful mess!

  • Good point there, northernlass. We try to put out fresh food every day, and not to put out lots more than the birds will eat - spoilage and bacterial/ mould growth is not limited to home-made fat balls, and we always make sure that our feeders are clean and that food is not allowed to go off in the feeders.

    I wish that we had trees big enough to be able to put food in cracks in the bark - we've planted some, so we'll maybe only have to wait 20 years or so! I miss the nuthatches and woodpeckers that used to visit at our old house. For now, I've been making my own log feeders with the aid of a 1.5" drill bit, they'll have to do for the time being.

    Cheers for the advice!