Cats and birds

By Kate Crowley
Black-billed magpies are one of my favorite birds, even though I have to travel west to see them in abundance.  But this column is not going to be all about magpies; it is going to be about cats, as you will see momentarily. 
Last week I was in Bozeman, Montana visiting my son and his family and while my granddaughter Teagan and I were in the backyard, we suddenly heard the loud and excited calls of a magpie in their neighbor’s yard.  Jon’s dog, Paolo rushed towards the fence and I told Teagan there must be a cat out; both Paolo and the magpie knew it.  Their next door neighbor could probably be called a ‘cat’ lady.  She lives alone and has at least four cats, which she allows roam outside.  One of the reasons Jon built the fence that separates the two yards was to keep her cats from coming into his yard, but it hasn’t stopped them.  Cats can leap high and scale barriers.
As the magpie continued to ‘yell’ I went up to the fence and tried to peer through a slat.  The magpie flew from one tree to another near the corner of the house, just as the cat appeared. It stopped there and I couldn’t see it clearly, but when it turned I could see some white near its chin that didn’t look right.  That’s when I realized it had a magpie in its mouth.  Magpies are big birds; larger than our blue jays, but smaller than ravens.  They are all in the same Corvid family and like other corvids they are very vocal when alarmed or distressed. Magpies also mate for life and that might explain this particular bird’s distress.
I decided at that moment to try to do something to rescue the bird, if at all possible.  My five year old granddaughter was at my heels as I rushed to the gate, trying to explain to her what I was going to do.  The cat had gone beneath a deck at the back of the house and Teagan and I got down on our knees and tried to peer into the darkness.  It looked like the cat had gone to the other end, so we moved around to the far side, got down and looked again. I could see the cat in silhouette and I thought it still had the bird in its mouth, but there was nothing I could do to catch it.  I stood up, feeling helpless and at that moment the magpie shot out from under the deck.  I could hardly believe it, but I’m guessing the cat was bothered enough by our presence that it opened its mouth.  We watched the magpie fly away, while its partner continued to rail at the unseen enemy.  Finally it too flew away in the same direction as the first bird. 
While it appeared that the bird that had been captured was uninjured and safe, it could very well have had puncture wounds on its body that could become infected, but we will never know.  Teagan and I talked about what we had seen and about the problem of letting house cats roam freely outdoors.  This was just one example of a national problem.  Study after study has shown the catastrophic impact domestic cats have on birds and other wildlife.  Tens, if not hundreds of millions of birds are killed each year by cats, both domestic and feral, and that could be cut drastically if people would be more responsible and just keep their cats indoors.
Do not accuse me of being a cat hater.  We have had three cats as pets and we kept them inside for their own health, as well as that of the birds.  The cats that live next door to my son’s house are obviously well fed when you see them waddling about, but this does not in any way curtail their natural instinct to hunt.  And even a fat cat can sneak up on a bird that’s feeding on the ground, as black-billed magpies do.

The dangers for cats is large as well, and growing more dangerous.  I just read about the increasing coyote populations both in urban and rural communities.  Cats are without doubt a part of their diet; as much as 42% in a recent study done in Tucson, Arizona.  Cars, disease, and attacks from other cats or dogs are other threats they face, once outdoors.  It may not be easy to convince your once free roaming cat that it must stay indoors, but you are the one in charge of its health and future and knowing the facts I hope you will act in favor of both birds and cats. 


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