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.
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.
Occasionally you see a bird without tail feathers. Chances are the bird lost feathers instead of its life by a lucky escape from a predator. When will the feathers grow back? Is replacement immediate or does it take place with the next molt?
A member of the birding email list BirdChat asked that question a few days ago. Several other list members provided the answer: the feathers grow back ASAP. The delay would come only if the attack caused wounds that needed to heal.
Tail feathers would be replaced automatically in one of the bird’s seasonal molts. But they’re so important to flight control that regrowth begins immediately.
Any waiting period as wounds heal is apt to be short because the bird probably will die first. If the attack draws blood as well as feathers the wounds are infection-prone. Predators’ claws almost always contain septic material – bacteria – that are highly likely to create a fatal infection.
One BirdChat responder told a great story. A birder in England and a friend were using a large live trap to capture birds for banding. A Eurasian Collared-Dove lacking tail feathers was caught. Banded and released, it walked back into the trap. A pattern developed. Released in the evening to go to roost, the dove returned to the trap every morning until tail feathers had been fully replaced. The bird seemed to understand that in the trap it was safe from predators, particularly, I imagine, the one that had removed its tail.
ANOTHER BIRDCHAT NOTE: A bird bander wrote that the itinerant finches we see at our feeders are mostly new day to day. The redpolls and goldfinches you feed today will move on, being replaced by others of the same species. He wrote that he had determned this via the ID bands he attaches to bird legs. I have no confirmation of this behavior (the birds', not his). It might explain, though, why we have a couple of dozen redpolls one day, none the next, and Pine Siskins on catch-as-catch-can basis. Goldfinches are here all the time, for whatever reason. Yesterday I did see a redpoll with a splotch of white on its back, a bit of albinism. We'll see if it returns.
AND, fellow StarTrib columnist Val Cunningham wrote today to say that chickadees in her St. Paul neighborhood are beginning to sing their spring song -- feee-beee, high on the fee note, low on the bee. Chickadees were doing it here this morning as I filled feeders. It's not this sudden burst of heat -- all the way into the low teens -- that has given them voice. Birds respond to the increasng amount of daylight at this time of year to put them into the spring mood.
This cat came out of the swamp behind our house Monday morning, spending much of the day below our yard-based bird-feeding rig. I chased it back into the brush twice, but the cat came back. I think it's a feral animal. I've not see it around here before. It's gone feral or its owner lets it outside, a bad idea. Cats kill birds and other small animals. They also get eaten by coyotes and hit by cars. It's best for everyone if cats stay indoors. For a very graphic depiction of the damage cats do, take a look at what I found to be an entertaining and novel way of making the point. The address is http://theoatmeal.com/comics/cats_actually_kill
While in California over the holidays we came upon a woman who feeds 47 feral cats. I was polite, though doubtful when she said she fed her wards so well that they did not hunt. She told us the cats wander in to join the herd. She takes each newcomer, she said, to the vet for vacinations and neutering. That's a necessity if one is to feed feral cats, but hardly a solution for the killing they instinctively do, full tummies or not. All cats belong indoors. Having 47 indoors, however, is likely to get you in the newspaper sooner or later.
Here's the animal that has been pestering us.
|Movies (2)||Weather (1)|
|Animals (3)||Photos (2)|
|Holiday shopping (2)||Bird biology (263)|
|Bird books (70)||Bird conservation (135)|
|Bird feeding (74)||Bird identification (142)|
|Bird interactions (48)||Bird migration (128)|
|Bird personalities (19)||Bird sightings (125)|
|Bird travels (102)||Birds in the backyard (97)|
|Minnesota birding sites (46)||Nesting (60)|
|Problem birds (2)||Art (1)|
|Photography (2)||Events (1)|
|Birding equipment (22)|