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How to make fat balls for birds

Our homemade fat ball bird feeder is fun and easy to make with kids. Fat balls make excellent winter food for birds.

With this pine cone design, you won't need a separate fat ball holder.

To make pine cone fat ball bird feeders you will need:

  • lard (or suet, if you prefer)
  • birdseed
  • pine cone(s)
  • twine

How to make a pine cone fat ball bird feeder

  1. Bring the lard up to room temperature.
  2. Clean the pine cone(s) and tie a long piece of twine around the bottom of each one.
  3. Gradually mix the lard with the birdseed until it all sticks together.
  4. Push the fat ball mix between the pine cone scales to create a big, tasty fat ball.
  5. Refrigerate your fat balls until the lard has set.
  6. Hang the fat balls in a quiet and sheltered area.

Keep watch to see which birds visit your fat balls. If you can, record your sightings in a nature journal. You might also like to take photos to share with friends or to take part in The Big Garden Birdwatch.

A bird pecking at a fat ball

A great tit visiting one of our homemade fat balls

Share your fat ball photos

We'd love to see photos of you making your fat balls or your finished results. Please share your photos with us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using #NHMatHome.

Top tips

  • You will find it easier to mix the lard with the birdseed if you chop it into smaller pieces first.
  • When the birds have eaten the seeds and fat, you can reuse the same pine cone to make a new feeder. It is important to clean the pine cone in boiling water before reusing it as diseases can spread between birds at feeders if they're not cleaned regularly.
  • You can make extra fat ball feeders and store them in a plastic bag in the freezer until needed.
  • Try to hang bird feeders away from areas where cats may be lurking, but keep them within a short distance of trees or bushes - birds like to have quick access to cover.
  • If a few days have passed and birds still aren't visiting your fat ball, try hanging it in a different location.
  • The more regularly you put out food for birds, the more likely it is that your bird feeders will receive visitors, as more birds will become aware that they are there.
  • Fat balls may go mouldy in damp weather. If you spot signs of mould, throw your fat balls away. 

What to put in fat balls for birds: alternative ingredient ideas

Fat ball recipes can be very simple. The ingredients above produce a high energy food that will benefit your local birds in cold weather. You could also add in some raisins, currants, sultanas, small pieces of apple or pear, or grated cheese if you have any spare. Crushed peanuts are also an option, as long as they are unsalted and in date.

You can use suet instead of lard, if you prefer, so fat balls are sometimes called suet cakes.

You could also use single-ingredient peanut butter, with no added oils. But don't use peanut butter containing artificial sweeteners or added salt.

Adding these extra ingredients can be a way of reducing food waste and helping birds at the same time, but don't feel you have to add these other things.

Foods to avoid

  • It is best not to use bacon fat as it tends to be high in salt, which is bad for birds.
  • Don't use fat left behind after cooking meat as it tends to smear and if it gets onto birds' feathers it wrecks their waterproofing and insulating qualities. It is also a breeding ground for bacteria, which can be bad for birds' health.
  • Don't use use polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils as these also easily smear onto feathers and damage their protective qualities. They also don't contain the high levels of saturated fat that birds need.

The RSPB website has more advice on what foods are safe for birds.

When do birds eat fat balls?

Fat balls will be particularly appreciated by garden birds in winter, when they need foods packed with energy to survive cold weather. Small birds such as robins are particularly at risk from the cold and can lose a substantial amount of bodyweight overnight. If small birds to go too long without being able to replenish their fat reserves, it can be fatal.

You should avoid putting out homemade fat balls for birds in summer as they can become soft and turn rancid in warm weather. It is better to use a different type of bird feeder when it is warm, such as a seed feeder

What birds will use the fat ball feeder?

Fat balls are likely to be a particular hit with tits and sparrows, although many hungry birds will gobble up the seeds and fat, including members of the crow family such as magpies and jackdaws and jays. Even greater-spotted woodpeckers.

In the UK, you are most likely to see blue tits, great tits, house sparrows and starlings eating fat balls. They are also a favourite food of long-tailed tits, so you could also see a flock of these delightful little birds gobbling up your fat balls, if you're lucky enough to have some visit your garden. Robins and blackbirds will also appreciate this food, but they are predominately ground feeders, so they will mainly enjoy scraps that fall to the floor.

Here are illustrations of some common garden birds that your fat balls are likely to be popular with:

How to get the most from bird feeders

Putting out food for birds can be a great way to get to know different bird species and watch how they behave. By noting what you observe in a nature journal, you could gradually learn about birds' food preferences and when particular species tend to visit.

You could even turn your sightings into science and help experts understand how wildlife is faring across the UK, by taking part in The Big Garden Birdwatch in January.

Above we've highlighted above the common bird species you're most likely to see eating fat balls in the UK, but if you need help identifying a bird in Britain you can:

By providing a range of different foods and feeders, you'll have the best chance of encouraging a wide variety of birds into your garden. 

Find out how to make a seed bird feeder that you can put up for garden birds all year >

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