Last evening, while I was puttering in the backyard, a blackbird fledgling hopped through the open door of the garden shed. My efforts to coax it out only caused it to scamper further into the dark recesses of my “woman cave.” All the while, the child’s mother was scolding me loudly from a nearby tree. When it was time to go in for the night, the little peeper was still in residence. Rather than locking him into the dark and stifling structure, I propped the door open a few inches to permit his egress at his convenience. I’m hoping, when I check the shed after work today, that I’ll find its population down by one, rather than up by an indeterminate number of snakes, mice, rabbits and other undesirable tenants.
My mom worried that the little guy might fall victim* to a white cat that prowls the neighborhood overnight. However, based on my experience of bird-cat relations, I’m more hopeful. Despite anti-cat propaganda that puts cat-caused carnage against bird populations on a par with the Visigoths’ sack of Rome, I maintain birds can hold their own against their feline foes.
In 2013, a controversial study in the journal Nature Communications postulated that cats are responsible for between 1.4 and 3.7 billion bird deaths a year. That does indeed seem appalling. But consider that the world population of birds is estimated at 400 billion, and the paltry .00925% that cats cull seems a little less egregious. Based on the cacophony of tweets and chirps that starts up about 4:30 am every morning outside my window, I can say with certainty that the winged creatures are not endangered species in my yard, at least.
Indeed, my experience suggests that birds are often the bullies in cat-bird interactions. Last summer I witnessed the startling spectacle of a bright orange blur of cat streaking across the neighbor’s property at full speed, pursued by a trio of dive-bombing bluejays. The last I saw of the beleaguered feline, it dived under a camping trailer; the jays perched on top of the vehicle, laughing and pointing at their humiliated victim.
More recently, I had just lain down for a Sunday afternoon nap (that’s what weekends are for, yo), when I heard my cat Peep chattering from his perch on the windowsill. She was clearly agitated by something, making that staccato eh-eh-eh-eh sound that I’ve always interpreted as the cat version of a string of obscenities. I got up to investigate and discovered, a mere foot or so from the screen window behind which my cat glowered, a tiny bird on the end of a tree branch. It was a house wren (Troglodytes aedon), about the size of a tangerine, and it was taunting my cat. I swear to God it was staring Peep straight in the eye, bobbing gently on its twig and singing a sprightly song whose lyrics can only have translated to, “Neener neener boo boo.”
Frankly, as stealthy as cats imagine themselves to be, a bird that allows itself to be snuck up on by a cat is, in my opinion, not much of a bird. Birds have the great advantage of wings, which allow them to flutter just out of reach of their earthbound enemies, who are left to shout in impotent rage and shake their furry fists toward the sky before stomping off petulantly to take a nap.
As for the ghostlike predator that stalks our neighborhood, I hope he doesn’t have to depend on his hunting skills to make a living. A few days ago a quiet evening around the firepit was interrupted by a raucous din coming from the lilac hedge. A murder** of crows had descended on the shrubbery, occupying almost every branch. Their attention was directed toward the ground, and they were hollering in unmistakable fury. Beneath them, in a little hollow among the roots, cowered … the white cat. Whatever it had done to piss these guys off, it clearly regretted it. Rather intimidated myself, I backed away and left the stand-off to reach its natural conclusion. I haven’t seen that cat since, by the way. I prefer to assume he found other, more hospitable hunting grounds. But I did see a bit of white, furry fluff adorning a new nest in the pine tree yesterday …
*Sad coda: The fledgling apparently did leave the shed overnight, but was found some yards away, deceased of unknown causes.
** a group of crows is known as a murder, presumably because their raucous cries inspire homicidal thoughts in anybody who has to listen to them.