One morning while watching the arrival of spring migrant birds, we were startled and annoyed to see a cat lurking under the feeder seeking a bird victim. We so enjoy the Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and Indigo Buntings at our feeders. They add diversity to our usual visitors – titmice, chickadees, cardinals, and woodpeckers who visit throughout the year.
We chased the cat away but began researching the history of domestic cats and their impact on wildlife. It’s both fascinating and concerning.
Challenges Facing Birds
Modern birds face many challenges, including habitat destruction, climate change, light pollution that disrupts navigation, and crashing into towers. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst nonnative invasive species. They are the number one human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada and kill upwards of 2.4 billion a year.
Domestication of Cats
Cats have a strong hunting instinct.
People and cats have a long relationship. They were domesticated from the European wildcat over 10,000 years ago, probably in the Fertile Crescent. Wherever people have migrated to they’ve brought along cats. Even after so many years living with people this animal, Felis sylvestris, retains its predatory instincts, reproduces rapidly, and readily goes wild, or feral.
Domestic cats are fascinating animals loved by millions of people, so any criticism of them often brings a sharp emotional response. However, there’s no doubt they harm wildlife, and one of the main reasons is their artificial high population density.
Wild predators, like cougars, bobcats, and wolves have vast territories. It takes plenty of land to sustainably produce enough prey for a predator to live. So, if they are crowded together they’d starve. A naturally occurring population of predators in a healthy ecosystem simply has few individuals. For example, a healthy population of native bobcats may have only a few individuals spread over several square miles. The same goes for wild native European wildcats in natural areas in Asia and Europe. The problem comes when humans crowd many cats into a small area.
Families that don’t want cats stalking birds can take a few actions to reduce the death toll of birds. These include:
- Asking neighbors to keep their animals in their home or yard.
- Placing feeders on metal “shepherd’s hooks” that cats can’t climb.
- Configuring a ring of wire mesh around feeding stations to exclude cats from catching juncos, chipping sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds.
Birds face many hazards in this modern world. Cat predation is one that can be reduced. Both cats and birds can enjoy a safer life if the owners of descendants of the European wildcat kept their pets indoors.
*Note: Our assessment of WindowAlert is based on our experiences both from purchasing the company’s product and a complimentary set of decals to try.
Last fall as Rich was walking along the outside of the Cedar Rapids Public Library and found a tiny dead warbler on the sidewalk beneath a large window. Fall warblers are tough to identify but it was a blackpoll. Why did the bird hit the window?
This amazing bird has an enormous migration from the far north of the continent to the south each fall, with a reverse trip in the spring. The bird Rich found probably was only halfway through its autumnal journey. Its death was sad and probably could have been prevented.
Occasionally we have a bird crash against our windows at Winding Pathways, and a male cardinal persists in cracking his head against a window at our church in Cedar Rapids.
Bird numbers are declining at an alarming rate for many reasons. Certainly, habitat loss and climate change are taking a toll. Feral cats and windows also kill millions of birds every year. Some of that loss can be prevented.
Why Birds Are Killed by Windows?
According to Spencer Schock at WindowAlert, birds are impacted by windows for two reasons. First, all year, but especially during migration, birds simply don’t see the glass and assume they can fly right through it. That’s what happened to the warbler. Second, it’s springtime rivalry. The cardinal banging on the church window sees his reflection, assumes it is a rival and tries to chase it off or intimidate it. This behavior is common, especially among cardinals, and usually happens from late winter into early spring. It’s rarely fatal to the bird but can annoy humans inside the building.
How to Reduce Bird Strikes on Windows.
The simple solution for both types of bird strikes is to do something so the animal recognizes it is glass. Here are some ways to reduce window strikes:
- Close Drapes. But then people can’t see out and sunshine can’t enter.
- Put something over the exterior window that looks to birds like a barrier or physically keeps them away. Draping the mesh netlike material made to protect cherry trees from birds trying to steal fruit works. The downside is that sometimes birds get tangled in it.
- Put decals on the windows to help birds identify a glass barrier. We like the many designs sold by WindowAlert. They’re easy to apply, attractive, inexpensive and work well.
- Eliminate reflection to keep cardinals and other territorial birds from attacking their own image. WindowAlert has a material called Stop Bird Attack. It comes in a spray can that’s sprayed on the outside of the window. The material looks like white flocking put on Christmas trees to imitate snow. It eliminates reflection and can be easily cleaned off the window after the mating season.
Check the windows first.
Ready to spray
The spray makes the window opaque.
The BirdStop spray resembles Christmas tree flocking.
What to Do When a Bird is Found under a Window
A few times we’ve been sitting in our home and hear a bang as a bird strikes a window. We sadly find the poor animal lying still under the window. There are two likely outcomes.
This bird broke its neck hitting a window.
The bird is either dead or dying and there’s nothing we can do to alter that unhappy outcome. e bury the poor creature and add more visibility items to the window.
The bird has been stunned and will soon recover and fly away. Often a bird will recover, but while it is stunned it’s vulnerable to cats and other predators. Spencer advises gently putting the bird in a closed cardboard box or large paper bag. As soon as it has recovered, release it outdoors.
Probably the best thing a homeowner can do to help songbirds is to plant a diversity of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees to create habitat. The next best action is to keep cats indoors and reduce the odds of collisions with glass using the methods described above.
This Albino Woodpecker comes to the feeder regularly.
Several months ago, we looked out our dining room window and saw an unusual woodpecker enjoying suet at a feeder only a few feet away. It was a downy but it’s head was almost completely white, unlike all others of the same species we’ve seen.
Last year we had a fox squirrel with an unusually short tail that hung around our yard for months. We’ve also spotted other wild animals with distinctive markings unusual for their species, healed but visible wounds and other characteristics that help identify it as an individual.
The Power of Observation
Being able to identify an individual animal adds to the fun of wildlife observation. For example, from the squirrel, we learned that he or she mostly just stayed in our yard and nearby woods. We never spotted it at a neighbor’s yard. Then, one day we remarked, “We haven’t seen’ shorty tail’ for a while”. We actually never saw the animal again and assumed he or she met his end due to an accident, predator, car collision, or some other catastrophic incident. Because we could tell him from other squirrels, we know he lived at least ten months.
The piebald woodpecker still comes to our feeder, and we’re getting to know it as an individual rather than just a generic downy. It adds to the fun of wildlife observation.
Like people, animals are individuals. At first glance, every one may look the same but with careful observation, it’s possible to spot differences in plumage, fur, size, shape, gait, and even personality that help identify it as an individual. Scientists studying animals ranging from whales to snow leopards often learn to distinguish one from another by the pattern of barnacles on a whale’s body to the markings on a cat’s fur.
It’s a totally noninvasive way of distinguishing one from another. We can do this with common yard wild animals.
Do Squirrels Ever Fall?
What happens when a squirrel falls?
Squirrels are amazingly agile, but they do slip and fall. It’s not common, but it happens. Rich has seen two squirrels fall from the top of large oak trees.
One squirrel lost its footing on a huge oak tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center when Rich was walking nearby. It spread out its legs and tail and fell horizontally, hitting the ground with a “thump”. Although it fell at least 40 feet the squirrel appeared uninjured, scampered off, and climbed right back up the oak.
Another squirrel fell from an even bigger oak in our home’s backyard. It did the same as the Nature Center Squirrel and spread out its body, hit the ground, and ran right off.
Squirrels rarely fall, but once in a while, they do. Fortunately, as this YouTube video shows, they seem amazingly able to recover from a fall that would instantly kill a human.
What are some of the animals you know as individuals? Let us know!
As autumn progresses in the upper Midwest, birds appear and disappear, group and spread out. Pileated woodpeckers have returned to the suet feeders. Chickens help grind up the garden residue and eat the bugs. White-throated sparrows sing a different tune on their way south. Juncos suddenly appear. Bluebirds sit on branches surveying the yards. Hawks send everyone scurrying. Vultures wing one more time overhead before catching the north winds and head to warmer climes.
Watch these robins enjoying a sunny day bath.
Songbirds appreciate high quality seed to sustain them in winter.
Some birds homestead at Winding Pathways.
Bluebirds hang out on branches.
Chickens grind up garden residue.
Turkeys and squirrels would make short work of seed, leaving none for the small birds.
Winter is tough on birds so keep your feeders full.
Fledgling eagle resting in the back yard.
A robin surveys the area
All summer we’ve watched and listened to wren couples who built nests and raised young in our yard. An Indigo Bunting welcomed each summer morning with his song and serenaded the evening until dark. Early this spring, we marveled at the brilliantly colored orioles and grosbeaks who visited. During warm months, hummingbirds flitted up and down and all around outside our windows.
When a long-absent bird suddenly makes its springtime appearance in full breeding color, it’s exciting and easy to spot. We greet spring’s migrants after their long journey north with a hearty, “Welcome Home!” and some seed.
With fall now in the air, our vivacious summer bird friends are drifting away, pushed southward by vigorous north winds. Departure is different from arrival. When they appear in spring, birds are in their glorious mating colors and sing with gusto. They’ve been absent for months until one morning we look out the window – and there they are! It’s magical.
Indigo Buntings and Wrens Leave…
Arrivals are easy to mark. No so departures. By fall many birds have molted into their more subtle nonbreeding colors and just seem to evaporate. No singing marks their departure and figuring out just when they leave is challenging. More often we just say, “Gee, I haven’t heard the indigo buntings for a few days. I bet they’ve gone.”
…and Juncos Arrive
We wish we could help migrants on their departure evening by saying, “Have a safe trip and pleasant winter. See you next spring!” Since we don’t know exactly when they’ll be winging south, they depart without our good wishes. The parting is sad, but we know we’ll soon look out the window and almost miraculously spot the fall’s first juncos nosing around on the ground looking for a few seeds to enjoy for breakfast.
Wrens busily feed their young and sing all summer
Hummingbirds zoom up, down, and sideways all summer. Then, head south.
Indigo Bunting and Chipping Sparrow feeding.
Orioles and grosbeaks drift south starting in late summer and our bunting was gone by August 20. Hummingbirds and wrens disappear by late September. Juncos usually appear from northern breeding grounds in October and stick around until April. Then they seem to vanish overnight. But, that’s just before spring’s colorful songsters arrive