Friday, September 19, 2014

Cats and birds: Finding a peaceful solution

cat outside cardboard scratching posts
Typically, I'm the sort of person that dedicated bird watchers despise, because I am responsible for two creatures capable of devastating a bird population in mere minutes.

Yes, I have two cats that live outdoors, but I am also a dedicated birder, and I've recently redesigned my yard in order to lure more birds to my little patch of paradise. For me, bird watching and cat ownership aren't necessarily incompatible, although I'll admit that negotiating the peace in my yard has been a bit of a difficult process.

The Outdoor Cat Problem 

The best way to keep birds safe from cat predation is to keep the cats indoors. That's a simple, basic, common fact that everyone can agree upon. But sometimes, it's just not possible to keep our cats inside.

Senior cat on the couch
Eamon can't get birds, as he doesn't go out.

One of the two cats that lives in my yard was rescued from a shipyard. He had no human contact for the first few months of his life, and he was forced to fight for each and every scrap of food he managed to find, or else someone else would eat it. He wouldn't allow anyone to pet him, and he ran from any kind of food that was put in his dish.

Since his rescue, he's become somewhat tame and he will allow petting sessions, as long as he's well acquainted with the person who hopes to touch him. He'll also gladly accept any food I put in his bowl. But he's retained a feral streak, which means he likes to mark his territory. No training method I've tried could break him of this habit.

His outdoor companion, who was born under much less horrifying circumstances, has picked up these terrible peeing habits. He marks anything he can back into, and again, this isn't a habit I've managed to train away.

These are very old cats, and allowing them to live in the house means dealing with a life that's far less than sanitary. The damage they can do in just minutes might take a significant amount of money to repair, as cat urine can sink into carpet, hardwoods, dry wall and other hard-to-replace parts of a home. It's just not something I can live with. So the cats live outside.

But, I live in a birder's paradise, and I don't want to miss out on the action. And I don't think I have to, either.

Placement is Key

My yard contains two key elements I've used in a cat-and-bird friendly design: An incense cedar and a holly tree. I've used both of them to both lure birds to the yard, and they have elements that can keep the birds safe.

The holly provides winter berries for the robins that descend on my home in the winter months. The dense foliage also makes it an ideal nesting home for many smaller birds that need protection from the rain that's so common in Oregon. The spiky leaves, however, are quite painful for soft cat paws, and they make climbing said holly very difficult.

I've left fallen holly leaves on the ground year round, raked into piles to discourage cat exploration. I rearrange the leaves frequently during the tenuous nesting months, when I can hear the little birds calling out for their mothers. This natural moat has, at this point, discouraged the cats from climbing.

The feeders I use are placed near the incense cedar. This allows for quick arrivals and getaways by the birds, so they can grab a nibble and take it to a branch to finish the snack, but the feeders are placed several feet from the trunk of the tree, so cats can't climb up and chow down.

In the evenings, when the birds seem less interested in the seed and more interested in heading home, I rake up anything left underneath the feeders. I'd like the birds to stay up off of the ground, so there's less of a chance that a cat can attack them, and removing spent seeds seems like a good way to keep those birds safe.

Training Purposes

In addition to using smart placement, I've also done an extensive amount of training with these old cats. It's simply not true that cats cannot be trained to stay away from birds. These are intelligent creatures, capable of both learning and growing, and they should be allowed to do so.

In the early days, I used collars with bells. I made the bells a little bigger and louder, when the cats seemed capable of mounting an attack on surprised birds, but I left the collars on at all times. I also sat in my lawn chair for hours with one hand on my squirt bottle. When the cats came close to the feeders, they got a squirt. In time, I was able to squirt them from the back door, on the off chance that they decided to try my resolve. Now, I don't need to squirt them very much at all.

This kind of training is time-consuming, and the boys did manage to kill one bird early in the training process. But, the only death I've had in my yard in the last several months came from a kestrel attack, not from a cat attack. These furry cats are no longer interested in the birds, and my feeders are simply teeming.

Final Thoughts

I know that outdoor cats are the bane of any birder's existence, and I've railed about cats many times myself. They do a lot of damage, and they're hard to control. But, I hope we can all work together to keep our birds safe. Some of us cat owners have difficult critters we're working with as best we can, and we are trying to be responsible. Maybe, if birders and cat lovers do try to get along, we'll have safer neighborhoods for everyone.

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