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Uh-Oh. Zick Dough.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sorry for the interruption. JFK airport looks on the surface like it has wireless Internet, but the terminal we occupied all day yesterday was overloaded or bereft, probably both. So I couldn't post. I went directly from my (fabulous!) writer's weekend at Murphin Ridge Inn in central Ohio to Pittsburgh on Sunday and stayed overnight with the family in an airport hotel hoping to fly out for Maine Monday morning. The Airline Gods declared that it was Not to Be. Instead of flying out of Pittsburgh at 7 AM, our flight was delayed, causing us to miss our connection in New York, and we wound up challishing in a windowless terminal crammed with miserable people at JFK for 7 hours. Every flight we could take to Portland, Maine, was canceled for the day, but they told us we might just get out at 10:30 P.M. if we were very lucky. Or, then again, we might not, and we'd have to spend the night in that terminal. Ohh, wouldn't that be luverly. As we had been languishing there since 10 A.M., we rejected that notion. Think crying babies, blaring alarms and announcements, flourescent lights, nowhere to lie down. One sandwich stand with bread like wallboard. Baaaaaaaaa. We put our heads together with a similarly stranded couple, decided to catch a flight to Boston, rent a car and DRIVE to Maine. Anything, anything, anything but more sitting at JFK. We finally fell into bed at 12:30 A.M. on Hog Island, Maine, where I'm writing now.

The kids were great, real troopers. All day long at that airport, Liam acted like he ate jumping beans for breakfast, when actually it was Frosted Flakes. Thinking about it, that's pretty much the same thing, isn't it? Speaking of inappropriate foods...

I've been winding up to write this post for quite awhile, because I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about before committing anything to electrons. I've figured out something about the concoction popularly known as "Zick Dough," and what I've figured out isn't good.

As many of you know, I've always been a little squeamy about people calling this stuff, a mixture of cornmeal, quick oats, flour, melted peanut butter and lard, "Zick Dough." I didn't invent it; the recipe's been around for years, first as "Miracle Meal," and then, with some alterations (less sugar, fewer ingredients) as "Peanut Butter Suet Dough." I first wrote about it in Bird Watcher's Digest in the fall of 2004, when I'd been feeding it for two years. So I guess I've had a considerable hand in popularizing it. Every time I post about it, people want the recipe, and it pops up on blogs all the time, usually as Zick Dough.

In 2002, a BWD subscriber in Port Orchard, Washington had sent in photos of herself feeding it to a wild male pileated woodpecker--from her hand. Not only that, but over the ensuing seasons the big woodpecker brought his fledglings to her deck railing, where he'd stuff them with what she called "bird pudding." She sent me the recipe, we talked on the phone, and I came away convinced that this was some kind of stuff and I'd better start making it for my birds.

I've posted, more or less ecstatically, about suet dough for two years now. I fed more of the stuff this winter and spring than ever before. I'd multiply the recipe (yes, it's in the link above) times six each time I made it, dragging a huge lobster pot up from the basement and using my stoutest stainless spoon to stir it. It takes all my strength to stir a batch like that, and I get down on the floor and hold the pot between my knees as I grunt and groan the mixture into smoothness. But oh, the birds it attracted, especially my beloved bluebirds. I felt I was helping them through the winter.

Most of the U.S. had an abnormally cold, wet spring (or long winter, however you want to look at it). I kept feeding the dough at winter levels well into May, because it just refused to warm up, and I knew there couldn't be many insects stirring when it rained all day, and the nights went into the 30's and 40's.

And two bluebirds in my yard turned up lame. She looks fine--until you notice the missing scute on the outer toe--that pink zone.

First, the male from the front yard nestbox started holding up one foot, balancing awkwardly on the other and catching himself with an outthrust wing when he'd fall. Almost at the same time, the female bluebird from the backyard nestbox started sitting very low, puffed up as if she were in pain, and favoring both feet alternately. Now, this isn't necessarily something that would alarm me had it occurred in just one bird; I'd figure it had pulled a muscle or gotten its toe bent the wrong way. As I thought about it, though, I've seen lame legs in other songbirds at my suet dish over the years. I always figured they were coming to the suet dough dish because they were compromised. It didn't occur to me that they might have been compromised because they were coming to the suet dough dish.

Hmm. What's that going on with the heel of her right foot?

One of the nice things about having a 300 mm. lens, Mary, is that you can make a close-up examination of a bird you can't handle. I decided to photograph the afflicted birds' feet and legs, to see if I could blow up the pictures and determine what was going on. On getting my photos on the screen, I was sickened to see the backyard female bluebird's feet swollen, red and misshapen. No wonder she was acting as if she were in pain. She was in a great deal of pain, and she had to feed a brood of five young right through it all. And what was she feeding them? Why, Zick dough, of course.

Because the front yard male held up his foot, hiding it in his belly feathers, I couldn't get a picture of him, but I noticed that he switched off--sometimes he'd hold up the left leg; sometimes the right. That makes injury unlikely, and points even more directly to a metabolic problem. The mental leap I immediately took was that this condition had to be dietary in origin. When a pet bird turns up with a problem--any problem--the first place you go for answers is its diet. As I thought about it, these garden bluebirds, for all practical purposes, ARE pets, since they are eating prodigious quantities of an artifical diet. They're living on lard, oats, cornmeal, flour and peanut butter. Does that sound like a proper diet for a wild bluebird?

Wouldn't you think someone who has kept an orchard oriole and a Savannah sparrow going for 17 years as captives, feeding them everything from live wasp larvae to lasagne, might have figured this out before now? I can be a little slow.

As my friend Shila points out, the foods that are seasonally available to wild birds (and people) are the foods that are appropriate for them at that time of the year. Feeding unlimited lard and peanut butter all winter and well into the spring can't be a good idea. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I had created this problem in otherwise healthy birds. So I got on the trail of it. I'll tell you what I learned tomorrow.


Well, I'm relieved now. I know your blogging habits quite well, you know, and wondered why you're late. Glad you're out of JFK!

I'm flabbergasted - what? Can there be too much Zick Dough? I've been feeding over 1/2 lb. day from January 1st through our chilly spring that didn't really end until mid-May. I withheld food altogether for two weeks but now I'm back to feeding only seeds and a little dough twice a week.

Thanks for sharing your findings, Julie. I can't wait to hear the rest of the story.


If you are encouraging guesses, then mine is that a diet-o-dough leads to a vitamin and/or mineral deficiency. I would think it guarantees enough protein, fibre, and fat.

The only things that ever ate my suet dough, by the way, were the squirrels, and they all appear to be well-shod. Dang.

Your Science Chimp moments are usually so joyful. This one must have been hard. Looking forward to your exposition and the story's resolution.

Uff da! I feel for you sitting at the airport. I'm traveling to Seattle next weekend and dreading the whole airport saga.

Wow, interesting stuff regarding the dough? It's so hard when we try do the right thing and find out we may have harmed someone instead. Reminds me of when I found a house sparrow that had gotten its leg caught on a caged "squirrel proof" feeder. Apparently he tried so hard to get away he wrapped his leg 'round and 'round the cage metal. Oh, I started sobbing when I found him, even for a dang house sparrow. My neighbor came over and we nipped the wire piece with bird off the feeder and she drove the little guy all the way to a wildlife rehab center that amputated his little leg, let him recover and sent him on his merry way.

But, just think of all the babies that wouldn't be around today if it weren't for that famous dough keeping them alive in the cold wet spring!

I'm glad to see you discussing the possibility of overfeeding suet mixtures because I had started to wonder if I was truly being stingy with it.

I learned from my grandmother to offer a "slab" of suet in a net attached where 'peckers frequented during the winter as an amendment or mold a mixture of melted suet and peanut butter into chunks that needed to be pecked to get the goods. She loved her birds but felt it was bad to feed in summer or even lighter winters if natural sources were available. It sounds like maybe she was on to something. Maybe it's another instance of thinking we can "improve on nature?"

How do we balance supporting declining populations without removing their wildness and making them dependent on the handouts? Who feeds them when we move, or die, or no longer have the spare change? Birds in nature should be wild, not specimens in bar-less zoos.

Don't over-personalize this as these are questions I debate with myself every winter. Am I doing enough, is it too much, is feeding at all the wrong approach, etc...

Oh my Julie. I suppose, just as with our own diets, there has to be balance. Looking forward to hearing what you found, though feeling sorry we all may have caused harm, when that was certainly never the intention.

Very interesting...I don't go through as much as you. Only the Boreal Chickadee, the Grey Jays, and the Downy Woodpecker come to call at the suet feeder. Also, we can only keep it out for so long or the Brother in the Black Fur coat will come around. Hmmm....could this be Birdy Gout?

Oh, and I can so feel your airport pain. Traveling unconfirmed can make days like yours more likely. Until the whole liquids thing, I would carry a jar of bubble juice in my carry-on to hold Zoey's attention.

geeee, leave us hanging why don't ya!! anxious to hear how this all ends, and if it applies to suet diets in general, or something specific to your recipe...
Similarly, I've always wondered how good it can be that millions of people feed millions of hummingbirds sugar water made of refined white sugar -- I know hummers eat from other sources (insects and natural nectar), and there's probably plenty of literature on this somewhere saying it's ok, but I still wonder what we DON'T know about drawing the lil' guys to our little red feeders of artificial concoction (and I don't buy the notion that 'sugar is sugar is sugar') Hopefully, any ill effects are minor, but...

Are you thinking D3 deficiency?

From a fellow science chimp.

Waiting anxiously for the continuation of the Zick dough dilemma.

Wow, how interesting! NOw, I don't feel so bad that I fed very little Peanut Butter Suet dough through the winter and cut everybody off "cold turkey" come spring. I suppose there can be too much a good thing. I'm with Trixie in guessing gout.

Waiting anxiously for the rest of the story,


PS: How DID you survive the airport hassles?

Oh, I wish I knew you were all languishing at JFK. I could have taken you to Jamaica Bay right down the road for some respite!

The lameness that you have observed in your bluebirds is probably a sign of Metabolic Bone Disease. MBD is a well-known syndrome in animals that have been fed a diet with an imbalanced calcium:phosphorus ratio (Ca:K).

An adult bird requires a dietary Ca:K ratio of around 1.5 (range 1.2 to 2.0). The calculated Ca:K of Zick Dough (according to the posted recipe using whole wheat flour) is 1/10:1.

Most of the items which we offer to wild birds are also very deficient in calcium. This is not a problem as long as "feeder-fare" forms a small percentage of daily food intake.

The cold wet spring may have caused your bluebirds to eat more suet dough--natural food sources were less available.

Adding 1 level tablespoon (9 grams) of calcium carbonate will bring the Ca:K ratio of a batch of Zick Dough to around 1.6:1.

Calcium carbonate is widely available at many health food stores. Ground up cuttlebone (90% calcium carbonate) could be substituted. Do not use other calcium supplements, as the values would be different.

A Vit D3 deficiency in wild birds is probably unlikely: their bodies are able to manufacture Vit D through exposure to the sun's UV light.

Upon request, I will send anyone the long version of the suet dough analysis.


So…about gout. Perhaps raising the protein level in your suet would help? I like the bit about calcium, too (and a pretty cheap fix, at that!); but your comment regarding the need for more bugs and such got me thinking.

I usually get my mealworms live, from (best prices anywhere…and the nicest people, too!); but I have seen these worms offered ‘freeze-dried’ and that’s where I got my brilliant idea.

Why not crumble some freeze-dried mealworms into that famous crack, I mean suet, which you make? They’re cheaper freeze-dried, too. …or are they baked; I’m going to have to check. Either way, they’re cheaper, wholesome and easy to keep.

I’m going to give it a try (come winter-time); I’m sure the birds will like it.

Thanks again for your good always keep me thinkin!


Thank you for this article. While I was waiting for my order of Chick feed to arrive, I went ahead with the old recipe. A pair of bluebirds appeared on my deck for the first time! They loved it!

However, once the Chick feed arrived (non-medicated of course), I mixed it into the old batch and served it. A bluebird took a small piece then left without returning. That tells me that they did not like it.

I crumble it along my deck railing as I have learned the other birds don't like big lumps of it. I wondered if it maybe had too much of something in it, since adding the Chick feed, but the consistency is still good.

Any ideas?

Nita in North Carolina

Hi Nita in North Carolina,

Here's my guess. If I understand you correctly, you simply added chick starter to an already-mixed batch of Zick Dough. If the peanut butter and lard had already solidified and you simply added chick starter, what probably happened is that the bluebird took a bite, got straight chick starter with no tasty lard or peanut butter blended into it, and thought, "Yuck." My recipe is meant to be made up with all ingredients melded with the melted fats. Not augmented with straight chick starter after everything has been mixed. I did careful taste test trials with Old Zick Dough and Improved Zick Dough, and I found equal acceptance across all my feeder birds in side-by-side comparisons. So go ahead and mix up an Improved batch, and see if that doesn't happen for you, too.

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