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Peanuts, Salmonella, People and Birds

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bluebirds clean up the last of the morning's offering of Zick dough.

This post started with a note from Nina of Nature Remains, wondering if I'd thought about peanuts, salmonella, and birds. People can get salmonella from contaminated peanut products, and so can birds. Birdchick had posed the question on her blog, and even called up some peanut butter suet manufacturers to see if they could assert the safety of their products. Good question, Birdchick! Eek! Are my Zick Dough eating birds safe?
A dark-eyed junco shares with a field sparrow.

The peanut has moved squarely into my forebrain. At our Superbowl party on Sunday, two toddlers attended, both of whom have severe peanut allergies. What are the chances of that? I looked at those precious little people and it was as if everything in my kitchen was suddenly radioactive; glowing peanuts flying around, infiltrating every foodstuff that went in their rosebud mouths. Yikes. I felt a surge of apprehension, protectiveness, and a huge immediate empathy for their parents, forced to examine every label, think about everything that they offered their children, and pack Tupperwares of safe snacks wherever they went. Peanuts and peanut-based products are absolutely everywhere. If you don't think so, look at the FDA's peanut product recall list. It grows every day.

Now, thanks to the peanut product recall, we all have to think like the mother of a toddler with peanut allergies.

I have been checking online about the peanut-based products I've been consuming of late, namely Luna bars (Peanut Butter Cookie and Nutz Over Chocolate) and my new favorites, Clif Mojo Mountain Mix bars. I love these things for their convenience, especially when I'm traveling in foreign countries. Save yourself some time and money--skip the Luna bars and go directly to Clif Mojo bars. Mojo bars are delicious. By comparison, Luna bars taste like wet straw.

If my choice at breakfast on the road is some kind of sickening sweet roll, a doughnut, bagel or nothing, I'm delighted to pull a reasonably nutritious snack bar out of my pack and take a pass on the carb-laden junk food before me. So I stuff about twenty little bars in my suitcase while I'm packing for each journey, along with raw almonds and macadamias. I'm thereby assured of a nutritious start to my day, or a boost when I'm flagging. Needless to say, I buy the snack bars in bulk, 15-bar boxes. I was going to take a substantial hit if I just threw them out, and the Clif company had made a voluntary recall of its peanut-containing products just to be safe. So I spent part of an afternoon on the phone with the Clif people.

They were terrific, and they believed me when I said I was a travel writer (and unrepentant pack rat) and had, uh, 89 uneaten possibly contaminated Clif Luna bars in my pantry. Cool. The Clif company is now sending me coupons to replace those with new, delicious and safe Clif Mojo bars. Mmmm. Good deal all around.

But back to the birds. In the recent ice storm, I kept my birds going with peanuts. Not only do I feed cocktail peanuts in a cylindrical feeder,A Carolina wren vies with a female yellow-bellied sapsucker for peanuts.

but I make huge batches of Zick dough, which of course is peanut-butter based. Eight bluebirds magically appeared in last week's ice storm and began begging for Zick dough as if their lives depended on it. Which, in the four solid days of ice we experienced, they doubtless did.
Glug, glug, glug. A male eastern bluebird stuffs himself with high-energy homemade dough.

A field sparrow, most delicate and beautiful of sparrows, fills up on Zick dough.

It is clear that, at least on Indigo Hill, the peanut should have its own food group. So far, major brands of jarred retail peanut butter have been declared safe from salmonella contamination, and have not been recalled by the FDA. Big institutional tubs of peanut butter, however, are suspect. And commercial peanut-based suet doughs must necessarily be viewed with suspicion, since they may have peanut paste, peanut bits, bulk peanut butter, and other ingredients sourced from the Peanut Corporation of America, which has a history of unsafe conditions. A blue jay helps himself to dough

Here's the peanut/salmonella rub: If you're feeding peanut based suet concoctions, it's best to play it safe and make them yourself, from human-grade jarred peanut butter, because birds can get salmonella just like people can. So here's the recipe for Zick Dough, once again.

Peanut Butter Suet Dough from Julie Zickefoose

1 cup peanut butter
1 cup lard

Combine and melt these two in the microwave, in the oven, or over very low heat on the stovetop. Remove from heat and stir in:

2 cups plain yellow cornmeal
2 cups quick oats
1 cup flour

Allow to cool and harden, then chop into chunks and store at room temperature in jars. Serve crumbled in a shallow dish. Attracts bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, jays, wrens, thrashers, orioles, cardinals, and towhees. This is an excellent supplement for nesting birds, especially in cold, rainy weather, as they will feed it to their young. However, it is not recommended for warm-weather feeding, as it is too rich and may cause gout. Feed only in the depth of winter or as an emergency supplement in spring.
A northern cardinal likes what she tastes.

Here's Garth the red-bellied woodpecker, Ruby's mate, homing in on some Zick dough. Yes, he's still around and going strong.
My thanks to Nina for sparking this post, and to Birdchick for raising the question about peanut safety and birds in the first place. Until your peanuts get contaminated, you don't realize how ubiquitous and valuable they are. Be safe, everyone--and make sure your beautiful birds are safe, too.


Julie, seeing the joy those birds have eating your dough is the reason why I love to feed them so much. The blue bird and cardinal photos are precious.

I have been making my own suet for months now and wouldn't even dream of going back to the store bought suet because the birds prefer the home made stuff so much better.

Thank you for refreshing this, Julie!
With the one-two punch of ice storms and peanut recalls, my bird worries escalated.
This recipe is easy to make and a way for so many to help out, safely, especially in these chilling winter months.
I'll print it and store it safely--one can never be without the Zick Dough recipe close at hand!

Party on, Garth.

Hey, babe, thanks for the link. I have heard from three major suet manufacturers and all assure me that they do not use the industrial peanut butter. Pine Tree farms says that they grind their own nuts for suet and know where the nuts came from.

One suet manufacturer had the gall to tell me, "Birds can't get salmonella!"

We argued this a bit and then he back pedaled and said, "Well, birds can't get this strain of salmonella."

I've seen no documentation that tells me if this strain of salmonella involved in the recall affects birds and even asked that suet manufacturer forward me his info. I've yet to see it.

Follow the ever-wise Julie, make sure you know where your nuts are coming from.

Thank you for the recipe! Do squirrels and deer like it, too? (I sure hope not!)

Sharon, I just hope The Boss knows where his nuts ended up.

Elizabeth, squirrels adore it. I doubt deer would touch it thanks to the lard content.

Great pix! Who knew Field Sparrows ate Zick Dough?
Scott Weidensaul referenced your dough on the PA Birds list-serve a week or so back in response to a post about suet recipes.

As for the Boss's nuts, I don't think they were ever in any danger of wandering out of those mighty tight black jeans.

Thanks for covering this concern. It has certainly been a topic of discussion.

I love the awesome photos of the birds loving the Zick dough. It is especially good to see gorgeous Garth.

Julie, I thought that in either a a post last year or a comment to a post about Zick dough you had reconsidered its use, or at least its constant use...

I sort of took my cue from that posting. Did I misunderstand?

Hi, Karen,

If you read the recipe carefully, I feel good endorsing the suet dough for use in the coldest part of winter, but I advise against feeding it once the weather warms up. It is a terrific food for a huge variety of birds in winter. It isn't so good to feed year-round--too rich. I think when ice storms hit and the birds are at their limit, it's a very welcome protein source. It's just overkill in April and May, that's all. I believe that goes for raw suet as well.

Julie, I've been exercising better judgement when serving Zick dough this year. I had been serving it daily well into spring; however, our winters aren't even cold enough for the birds to benefit by it. Now, I only serve it when the temps get around freezing at night and that's not too often! The birds do love it as much as I enjoy dishing it out.


The vet checks in:

As you all know, I am "KatDoc," not "BirdDoc," but I know a tiny bit about salmonella.

This enteric bacteria can cause diarrhea in many species, including birds and people, via the fecal-oral route and through contaminated food. Like Clostridial diseases (tetanus, botulism) the bacteria isn't the problem, it is the toxins the bacteria produce that cause illness in people. In birds, the actual infection is the main cause of disease.

Salmonella organisms may be isolated from healthy dogs and cats, making them asymptomatic carriers. Some bird species (pigeons, for one) can adapt to strains of Salmonella, acting as hosts.

"Most vertebrates can be infected with Salmonella however, the host susceptibility and development of carrier states vary widely among species. Free-ranging birds can be sub-clinical carriers and serve as a reservoir of bacteria."

Egg transmission has been documented in many avian species. Hens' eggs have been implicated in some outbreaks of salmonellosis in humans, which is why your favorite restaurant has stopped serving eggs Benedict or runny scrambled eggs.

Bottom line, birds may be the cause of salmonella or victims of it, both, depending on the strain of the bug and the individual's susceptibility.

Returning you to your regular blogger...

~Kathi, who is reminded to make more Zick dough

And here I am feeding my Zick dough to nothing but starlings. The other birds can't even get close to it. It's maddening.

When the weather is very bad, the starlings get desperate here, too. That's when I resort to what I call "snob feeding." I put my two dough dishes right up against the kitchen and deck windows, and I don't put the stuff out unless I can be right there to scare the starlings away. The best part of that is that the birds you want to come in grasp the concept immediately and put aside their fear of you. Here's a monster post about it:
Or, you can go to the new search box on my blog banner and type in "snob feeding."
Good luck!

Great post Julie. Peanuts really are their own food group. We all need to be safe.

Doh! I hadn't thought of that. Last time I went to the store I recieved two and a half feet of recall notices printed at the bottom of the receipt. The birds around here get a fair amount of manufactured suet. But I see mention here of a homemade version. Have to look into that.

Lots of great bird info and pix.
How do you get the close ups - bird blind covering a window?

50 acres. Wow.

I sit in my old Scotch rocker just inside the sliding glass door and shoot through the glass with a 300 mm. telephoto lens. The birds know me as the Dough Lady so it's no big deal to them to have me right there in my big, comfortable blind, shooing away starlings and making portraits.

Is Zick dough freezeable for storage if one makes more than one uses? Maybe my question should be "what's the best way to keep the dough for extended periods?"


Man, you are reading my mind! I was just thinking about this last night. We also had friends visit over the weekend and their adorable son has life threatening allergies - peanuts, sesame seeds & scallops. I was amazed at some of the things that contained sesame seeds. Those parents do great work 'keeping it normal' for their boy and keeping him safe at the same time.
Thanks for helping me do the same for the birds - I think it's time for a visit to Wally World to get some lard :) I have one of Garth's cousins in my yard and I want him to stick around.
And thank you thank you for the portraits. They are all gorgeous and that sparrow is lovely. I have yet to be able to distinguish them enough to truly appreciate them I think.
Yahoo for the search box!
Happy dough feeding all.

Sure, you can freeze it. Just don't freeze it in one big clunk or it'll never thaw. I used to make it on cookie sheets and freeze it in thin pieces in Ziploc bags. Now I have no storage problems, as you can see. It all gets eaten up too fast. Remember that lard doesn't need refrigeration, and neither does peanut butter, so it keeps a long time simply sealed in peanut butter jars at room temperature.

Thanks for the news update, Zick! And for the reminder about not putting out "the stuff" in warmer weather--I missed that whole gout post, I think.

P.S.--is it a coincidence that my music shuffle just started playing the Boss's stirringly stark "Nebraska?"

I tried a batch of your dough and the birds went mad--until the squirrels got to it.
Is there anything I could safely add to keep the fuzzy-tailed rats away? I've heard about cayenne powder in the bird seed, but would putting it into something mushy irritate the birds' skin?

(I try decoy-feeding the mammals, but they know where the Good Stuff is.)


Kes, the only answer is to offer the dough in a squirrel-proof situation--perhaps running a clothesline from one eave to the other and suspending the feeder from that. I don't advocate the use of capsaicin-containing products since I believe they can burn bird mucous membranes just as well as they burn those of mammals. I sympathize with you and your squirrel issues, and agree that the decoy feeding doesn't really work when you're putting out the premium stuff. I happen to know of a litter of Boston terriers, half-siblings to Chet Baker...very powerful squirrel deterrents. Failing that, squirrel proof your feeder.

Thanks for the dough recipe. Also for the heads up on birds getting salmonella, didn't even stop to think of my bird friends getting sick from it.

Great pic's, love the blue birds, we don't see many here in MA, so they are a treat.

Your photos are beautiful! You mentioned putting 'cocktail peanuts' in your feeder. Are these salted? I was under the impression that salted peanuts are a no-no for birds.

Yes, they're salted, surfscoter, and if I could find unsalted cocktail peanuts you may be sure I'd use them. The irony of it all is that I can get human-grade cocktail peanuts at a per-pound price cheaper at Wal-mart than I could buy unsalted bird-feed grade peanuts in a 20 lb. bag at the Wild Birds Unlimted store, which has since closed (maybe because I didn't buy their peanuts?). A couple of rains takes care of the salt on them, and I have yet to have a bird go belly up. If you've ever seen finches, grosbeaks and crossbills eating straight road salt, you know that a little salt isn't going to hurt a bird.

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