for the birds

babies.JPGMy friend Brenda, a dedicated birder, found a yellow warbler on the sidewalk in front of her office in downtown Oakland the other day. Hoping the bird was just stunned, she picked it up. But it was dead, likely the victim of a high-rise office window. Oakland, California is no different than any other city with multi-story buildings with large windows and often 24-hour lighting. An article by Gail Swainson in the Toronto Star tells a familiar story:

Every year, more than 10,000 migrating birds crash into Toronto’s highrise towers, then plunge to the sidewalks below, where a heavy-hearted Michael Mesure helps scoop them up in the early morning hours for disposal.

Studies show that window glass, mostly in high-rises, kills more birds than any other human-related factor, anywhere from 100 to 1000 million deaths worldwide each year. Accidental death from power lines, lighted communication towers, cars and trucks, and of course, pesticides, affects several 100 million more birds each year. It is a problem that one individual has little power to do much about.
But there is something entirely within your power to do to help the birds, and it could save a lot of them. In your own back (or front) yard, you could save 15 to 18 birds in a year. Nationwide, we could save perhaps a 100 million birds every year. All we have to do is keep our pet cats from roaming outdoors, and making a real effort to rescue stray cats and give them permanent shelter.
If you think your perfectly sweet, well-fed, even aging, Tabby wouldn’t hunt, or kill, a bird, here are some facts:
Cats kill prey regardless of whether they are hungry.In one study, six cats were presented with a live small rat while eating their preferred food. All six cats stopped eating the food, killed the rat, and then resumed eating the food. (Adamec, R.E. 1976.The interaction of hunger and preying in the domestic cat (Felis catus): an adaptive hierarchy? Behavioral Biology 18: 263-272). Just substitute “bird” for “live small rat” here; I’m guessing that live birds weren’t available – or just unacceptable bait for this science experiment.
Don’t bother to bell the cat. The Mammal Society, in England, conducted a survey of animals brought home by domestic cats. During a five-month period in 1997, 964 cats killed more than 14,000 animals. The mean number of catches or kills per cat was 16.7, and birds were 24% of the prey. The mean kill rates for belled cats was 19 and for no-bells 15. (The Mammal Society. 1998. Look what the cat’s brought in!). In other words, cats wearing bells killed more birds.
What you don’t know will kill the birds. A study conducted in Wichita, Kansas of cat predation in an urban area found that 83% of the 41 study cats killed birds. In all but one case, when feathers were found in scat, the owner was unaware that their cat had ingested a bird. In fact, the majority of cat owners reported their cats did not bring prey to them. Instead, the owners observed the cats with the bird or found remains in the house or in other locations. A de-clawed cat killed more animals than any other cat in the study. (Fiore, C. and K. B. Sullivan. Domestic cat (Felis catus) predation of birds in an urban environment).
In answer to the argument “but my cat only kills mice/rats/snakes/gophers”, be assured that, whether it’s laid at your doorstep or not, a cat that hunts small mammals is also killing birds 16 to 20% of the time. Often, it’s fledglings who aren’t yet skilled at avoiding predators, or peeps in the nest who have no protection from predators–just the willingness of their parents to die or be maimed trying to protect them.
It’s a jungle out there.Consider giving your free-roaming cat the gift of a long life: according to the humane society, the estimated average life span of a free-roaming cat is less than three years-compared to 15-18 years for the average indoor-only cat.
And as for the birds, there are some nice things you can do for them to make up for the havoc we’ve caused them (I forgot to mention earlier that human-caused loss of habitat is the largest single factor in declining bird populations worldwide)….

Does your garden have a bird spa?
Birds love bathing. Robins are total bath hogs, sitting in the bowl for ages while smaller birds wait impatiently on the sidelines. Give ‘em all a chance. No matter how many bird baths you install, they will all find customers. Make sure they are shallow so the tiniest bush tit doesn’t have to learn to swim. I’ve seen hummingbirds take a dip, and goldfinches nestle down for a good soak.
Refill the bird baths daily. The plumbing, afterall, is primitive. Also, visiting racoons and possums will turn them to mudbaths after dark. You don’t need anything fancy – a cheap terracotta dish for potted plants, set on a stump or another pot, will do. Try to place them in open areas so sneaky predators (cats) can’t surprise attack from the shrubbery. They look nice sitting amid flowering plants in your summer annuals bed, or under a tree or rose bush that supplies convenient perches for drying off. bath.JPG
Better than bird feeders, the bird bath offers close-up viewing and cute antics without the problems of squirrel seed-hogging, seed chaff messes, and feeder cleaning. It’s also a great boon to birds that in many places – urban areas, rainless summer regions – lack natural water resources for their bathing (and drinking) needs.
In my own garden I have many more, and more kinds of birds since I noticed the popularity of the bird bath and added several more. Birds will come for something specific (the wren and the flycatcher value the compost bin’s ample soldier flies; goldfinches like the Rudbeckia seed pods; towhees and sparrows ground-scratch for seeds and random nibbles; hummingbirds favor nectar from the abutilon flowers, and tiny bugs in the Albizia and Ceanothus trees attract flocks of bush tits and warblers)–and then stay for a bath.
And as for the cat, we are both a lot happier since she became an “armchair birder”, content to indulge her predatory fantasies from the inside of the window.

  1. #1 by dumpster on September 25th, 2008

    If only my neighbors could read this. Their cat is out only occasionally, but our wildlife-friendly garden is its prime hunting ground. A magnificent foot-long alligator lizard that had lived in our front planter (probably for longer than the decade we’ve been in our house) disappeared shortly after the cat first appeared this spring. Any advice? Permission to go all Sarah Palin on it?

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