By Barbara Julian
Deep in the soul of every housecat is a longing to be wild.
Each harbours the ghost of its wild ancestors. Those living under house arrest can be seen twitching at windows, longing to breathe fresh air and smell nature rather than upholstery.
They want to scratch on a tree trunk and pad through the undergrowth. Few well-fed housecats actually bestir themselves to kill a bird, but they enjoy pretending to stalk. They will more likely stalk a moth or pounce on dandelion fluff than on a bird, but they’ve been given a bad rap as gangsters of the gardens. The few have spoiled things for the many.
Remote South Pacific islands may be different, but locally even feral cats catch few birds, as we see by the state of their health. Who has ever seen a fat homeless cat? They seem to be eating little of anything, but when they kill a mouse or rat we congratulate them. Only birds are out of bounds. If they do kill a rat they may well be saving a bird, since rats prey on eggs and nestlings. But then so do larger birds, crows on baby robins for instance. Bird-on-bird violence we seem to overlook, but some would like even innocent cats to be imprisoned as criminals, indoors.
If not cats, what are the worst hazards facing urban songbirds (other than bigger birds)? Watering restrictions are fatal. Brown grass, dusty worm-less earth and shrivelled leaves equal dead birds, since more die of thirst than of hunger.
Windows are another hazard, especially the huge wall-spanning ocean-facing ones so popular in new-home construction, which to a flying bird seem full of sky, not reflection. The best things we can do for birds in the garden are to fill a bird bath and hang objects in our windows. As for high-rise blocks, experiments are sometimes made with tinting and blinds but we’ve got a long way to go to make them bird-safe.
A robin once flew into my living room window and fell literally into the paws of the cat sleeping in the flower bed below. She stared in disbelief at the heap of feathers which suddenly appeared out of nowhere, which I scooped up and put in a dark box until it recovered enough to fly off.
My other cat had reacted the same way when he found himself sitting beside our escaped hamster: he was so not the intrepid hunter he sometimes pretended to be that he didn’t know what to do next. (That near-victim too escaped.)
Domestic cats are much like us weekend campers who enjoy pretending we’re roughing it in the bush when we set up a tent in a provincial park.
We all need a touch of nature in our noisy urbanized lives. Cats need to prowl, dogs need to race around off-leash, humans need to walk barefoot in sand. What birds most need is protection for their habitat.
The more we cut down the trees and shrubbery they need for shelter, nesting and food-finding, the scarcer the urban songird will become. Never mind cats; we need to focus on the birds’ worst enemy, which is habitat loss. We need to preserve and extend urban gardens and parkland.