Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Feeding in our yard today was a White-throated Sparrow with a tuft of seriously misplaced feathers. They protrude from the bird's rigth flank, like a feather duster attached to the bird's hip. Behavior of the sparrow appeared ordinary. It moved on the ground and flew without apparent problem. Did the bird have a narrow escape from a predator, a claw tearing the feathers as the bird flew? Looks like a lot of feather for that part of the body doesn't it? And the dark color seems wrong. Doesn't make much sense. The sparrow's bill appears odd because the bird was manipulating a piece of cracked corn.
Before the ice was off the small pond in our backyard a pair of Canada Geese showed interest in nesting here. Geese have nested on the pond in previous years. As soon as I had open water I did some repair work to the floating nest platform. The pair appeared to be settling in. Yesterday (Wednesday) a second pair of geese arrived. The fight between goose couples began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The main event lasted an hour, not that they stopped then. I heard and watched them at 11 p.m., and at 1:15 and 3 in the morning. It’s now 10:45 in the morning, and the squabbling continues into its 20th hour. We’re down to verbal exchanges, a big difference from the loud, serious, physical encounters earlier. We had chasing, biting, attempts at dunking, and much flapping of those large wings. The pairs worked together. They fought mostly on the water, but occasionally in our yard. They stopped fighting now and again for intense preening. All feathers in place once again, it was back to the battle. The resident pair has spent some time on the nest platform; I assume they are and will be the winners, although the challengers remain at the edge of the pond. It was a great photo op. (Addendum: at 6 p.m. Thursday both pair remain at the pond, awake after naps on the sun, back on the honk.)
We are well into the season where birds are acquiring spring plumage, weather aside. The male American Goldfinches visiting our feeders show daily change. This molt begins in late January, triggered by light levels, and can continue into June for some birds. The bright yellow of summer appears one feather at a time, giving the birds a pied appearance. One of two of our feeder visitors have almost completed this molt. Others are way behind. Female goldfinches also molt at this time of year, acquiring a new set of feathers, but with subtle color changes. The molts occur as demonstrated – a few feathers at a time. A molt of all feathers simultaneously would render the bird easy prey and susceptible to weather. Below, two male American Goldfinches.
In today’s (Sunday) StarTribune outdoor writer Doug Smith writes about the current cat vs. bird discussion. It began recently when National Audubon suspended (and then reinstated) its best conversation writer because he noted in a free-lance (non-Audubon) article that a certain over-the-counter pain medication would kill cats if ingested.
A local response to the question of what to do with outdoor cats came from a man named Mike Fry. He is executive director of Animal Ark, according to the Smith article a no-kill Hastings animal shelter that sterilizes and releases feral cats picked up in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fry is quoted in Smith’s article as saying that the science-based reports of birds and mammals killed by cats nation-wide contain numbers that “are just made up.” The university and Smithsonian Institution researchers who have published their cat-study results are, in other words, lying about their findings. That is both highly unlikely and highly insulting. Fry should be embarrassed at this weak defense of his position, which is, don’t kill feral cats, they’re no big deal.
Fry, as do many other cat fans, prefers capture-neuter-release as the solution to the far-too-many-feral-cat problem. Not that neutering and releasing does anything to curb the cats’ hunting instincts. What Fry, among others, fails to mention is that domestic cats are an invasive species in North America. We had no cats until European settlers introduced them. Out native birds did not evolve with cats as they did with our other bird predators. Cats enjoy a hunting advantage.
According to Smith’s article, Fry also believes that outdoor cats for the most part kill only House Sparrows, House Finches, European Starlings, and pigeons. Talk about bogus statements. There is no way Fry can back that assertion with facts. Those four bird species are non-native, introduced, so I suppose his idea is that losing them is no loss. Those species are vastly outnumbered by native bird species, however. Odds are, unless cats are heavy into bird identification and have unheard of self control, cats kill whatever they please, non-native or not.
If non-native makes a species expendable, then cats are in that category. Theoretically, killing them should be no different than killing a House Sparrow. My position is that cats found free-ranging outdoors should be captured and euthanized. Many cat owners care for their pets enough do what is best for the cat and best for our native wildlife – keep the cat indoors. Other cat owners care so little for their cats that they are willing to sacrifice them to the unproven idea that cats absolutely must be allowed to be outdoors.
After all, it’s their instinct to be outdoors.
It’s also their instinct to kill. And it is not their instinct to be pets.
Municipalities that face this decision – capture and euthanize or neuter and release, sometimes cave to the loud protests of irresponsible cat owners. Too bad for the birds, House Sparrows included.
The photo below, taken from an Internet free-use site, shows a cat – whether feral or a beloved pet is unknown – with a coot in its mouth. Coots are native birds, big ones at that.
A. Birds can hear well.
B. Many single-lens reflex digital cameras make a loud sound (noise) immediately after the shutter release is pushed.
C. See photos below.
The cardinal, a female, was sitting on a feeder post on our deck before prior to snow seed foraging. I was inside, a double pane of glass between us, like 10 feet. I took four or five photos, bird on the post, bird with seed. On shot number six the bird became very alert, crest upright, eyes snapped toward me. You can see what happened as I took photo seven.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Hardly. I should have kept all the before/after pairs of photos. Before the bird heard the camera, looking at whatever kept its attention. After the bird heard me, saw me, and left me.
You probably know this: Single-lens reflex 35mm cameras allow you, the photographer, to see your subject with a mirror placed just behind the lens. The mirror shows you what the lens sees. When you press the shutter release, the mirror snaps up, allowing light to reach the digital sensor (i.e. film). And then the mirror returns to position with, in my case, a loud and annoying clack.
I work with a newer model Nikon digital camera that I considered expensive when I bought it. I knew about the clack. I was unwilling to spend twice as much or more for a high-high-end model that made far less noise. You’d think that camera manufacturers could find an inexpensive way to solve this problem.
Some birds either don’t hear the noise or don’t mind. This cardinal heard and cared. I was impressed. Small benefit: I really do like that snapped-to crest.
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