Decorating an outdoor tree with edible ornaments and garland is a great way to infuse a little holiday cheer to an outdoor space, while offering food for local wildlife. Plus, many of the materials needed for this fun, inexpensive craft are common household items and kitchen staples.
But before stringing popcorn and cranberries — which is one of the most common types of edible garland — there are a few things you may want to consider.
“I encourage people to be as natural [with their materials] as possible,” said Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist at Maine Audubon. “Use things that we already put out like bird seed and suet, but find creative ways to make them into decorations.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t use a little popcorn, he said. But offer it in moderation. Popcorn doesn’t offer wildlife much nutrition or fat, which is what animals need to make it through Maine’s harsh winter.
It’s also important to monitor your decorated tree if it’s close to your home, just in case it’s attracting wildlife like raccoons that you’d rather not be attracting. You may also choose to trash the edible decor if things are getting out of hand. But in general, because a holiday tree is temporary, it’s less likely to habituate wildlife than a long-term food source like a bird feeder that’s filled consistently throughout the year.
Hitchcox also suggested you keep an eye on your edible ornaments during warm days, when some of the food could spoil. Bacteria and mold can cause major problems for wildlife.
Also, if you own a house cat that spends time outdoors, this may not be the right activity for you, Hitchcox said. Outdoor cats are drawn to food sources like bird feeders and edible decor because it draws in birds and rodents that cats have a natural instinct to hunt. Therefore, your beautifully decorated tree, meant to help wildlife, could quickly turn into a death trap.
Along the same vein, Hitchcox suggests decorating a tree that’s nearby other evergreen trees or bushes so visiting wildlife has plenty of shelter from natural predators such as hawks and owls.
“I encourage people to do this, to make these cool ornaments to feed birds,” Hitchcox said. “It’s a great activity. But ultimately, the best thing you could do is plant a native plant in your yard that’s going to be a real natural food source that would feed something at this time. Winterberry is beautiful in the winter, with these wonderful red berries that birds love.”
If you don’t have an outdoor tree to decorate or you’d simply rather be involved in a community effort, you can help decorate the Night Tree at the Fields Pond Audubon Center at 216 Fields Pond Road in Holden, from Dec. 1 to 31. The Night Tree is located by the visitor center, where you can also enjoy a book walk of the classic children’s book “Night Tree” by Eve Bunting. Pages of the story are displayed in order throughout an easy trail.
But first, here are a few simple edible holiday ornaments for wildlife to get you started.
Peanut butter pinecone
Perhaps one of the simplest edible decorations, the peanut butter pinecone is a great, quick craft for kids. Just tie a string to the end of a pinecone and form a loop (for hanging off a tree branch), then coat the pinecone in peanut butter using a knife, spoon or — if you don’t mind getting messy — your hands. Roll the sticky mess in some bird seed and voila: an edible ornament for your tree that the birds will love.
Fruit and popcorn garland
An age-old outdoor homemade decoration, cranberry and popcorn garland can really jazz up a tree, but don’t feel confined to those two ingredients. Birds and other wildlife enjoy a wide range of fruits and berries, so add a little color with dried apricots, pear chunks and orange wedges. Popcorn is OK to feed wildlife, but only in moderation, so load up your garland with fruit and berries. And it’s best if your popcorn is unsalted and without butter.
To make the garland, you’ll need a sturdy, sharp needle and some strong but thin thread. Thread the needle, then use it to spear through each piece of popcorn and fruit. This craft takes some time. It’s easier if you have multiple people involved.
This craft is a little more involved, but bird suet is actually quite easy to make. Here’s a simple recipe for suet ornaments.
Yields 12-20 ornaments
1 cup flour
2 cups cornstarch
1 cup peanut butter (chunky is optional)
1 cup lard
1 1/2 cup birdseed
12-20 metal holiday cookie cutters
160 inches of twine, thread or string
Cut the twine into 8-inch pieces. Tie each piece to the top of a cookie cutter, forming a loop so it can be hung from a tree branch as an ornament.
Arrange the ornaments on parchment paper on a baking sheet and set it aside.
On low heat, melt the peanut butter and lard together in a large pot and mix with a spoon.
Remove the pot from heat and immediately add the flour, cornstarch and birdseed in small amounts until it can almost retain form. It should be slightly soupier than chocolate chip cookie dough.
Use a spoon to scoop the warm suet into the cookie cutters. You may need to use your fingers to pat the suet into all the corners.
On the baking sheet, place your ornaments in the fridge for several hours — ideally overnight — to allow the suet to harden.
This last decoration is simple but will add a splash of color to your tree. Cut an orange nearly in half. Carefully scoop out all of the juicy contents using a metal spoon. Discard the flesh of the orange or enjoy it as a snack. Then use a needle and thread to create a loop over the orange half like a basket handle, threading through the orange rind near the cut edge on two sides. Fill the orange with birdseed, or if you have some leftover suet, toss that in there, too. Using the string “handle” you can easily hang this from your outdoor holiday tree.
Whether you create these decorations or come up with your own, steer clear of using processed foods and empty calories, opting for seeds, nuts and berries instead. Turn up some holiday tunes, enjoy the craft project, and when you’re done decorating, monitor your tree to see what shows up for the holiday feast.