June 1, 2014

Of Cats, Songbirds, & The Way Things Are

I received a comment on my "The Catchers" post which has been on my heart to answer. Unfortunately the comment has since disappeared, so I could not answer it there, but I felt strongly enough about it to address it in a blog post. I had apparently offended this person because in the comments I stated, "I agree that I hate it when they catch birds (Katy usually) but there's no way to break that. My dad refused to have a cat for that reason. Still, the other destructive critters make it worth it to have some control. I suppose it's always a balance, isn't it?" The commenter focused on the "worth it" and took me to task.

When we first bought our place we had several rat snakes in residence. I've watched them slither up trees to raid nests. Dan found a dead one and cut it open to discover a full grown bird digesting in its belly. Snakes also rob chicken nests of eggs and baby chicks. They eat mice too, but is that a good trade-off? We find that when we keep the rodent population down, we have fewer snakes.

Last summer we lost six chicks to what we eventually figured out was a rat. That's when we decided to get more cats.

It is true that if we either did not have cats or kept them in the house, some birds would not be killed. The flip side to that coin is that we would have an ever increasing population of mice, rats, and snakes. Given the choice, which would you prefer? Unfortunately, there is no "none of the above" in life.

In the big picture, cats are not the only thing that hunt and kill songbirds. In our area hawks, owls, rats, and rat snakes prey on birds. Crows, blue jays, grackles, cowbirds, squirrels, and chipmunks rob nests. Some will be quick to point out that domestic cats are biggest threat to birds. That is very likely true in areas where there is a high population of domestic cats and a low population of vermin, i.e. urban and suburban areas. In rural areas, where there is a lower density of domestic cats, they will find a larger variety of things to hunt. However, I'm not interested in arguing that point with anybody.

When one lives close to nature in the way the farmer or homesteader does, one discovers a politically inconvenient truth; that nature is neither kind nor benevolent. It is, in fact, violent and cruel. No amount of technology, knowledge, human intelligence, nor tampering with it can change that.

I think the real issue is that there is a huge experiential divide between those who live in urbanized areas and those who live off the land. Unfortunately, this divide has nothing to do with reality, reason, and logic, but everything to do with opinion and emotion. This is why some discussions go nowhere but in circles. But does argument and criticism really help solve the problem or create new ones?

The beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote
"I should like to sentence the ex-governor who vetoed the state bounty on hawks to make his living raising chickens."  Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings
Does that mean she was a hawk hater? Or a politician hater? Some would jump at the chance to say so. More to the point is that we become so bound up in our emotional point of view that we forget there is another, usually valid, side of the story. We ignore the old proverb about walking a mile in another's shoes. If one has only seen beautiful, graceful deer in zoos, for example, it is so easy to rail against the farmer or gardener who is at wits end because the deer destroy all the corn. (Ever read The Yearling?)

I will be the first to admit that humans are the most destructive creatures on the planet. So what are the options? Argue about it? Further reform the educational system? Create laws and political campaigns to restrict everyone because of some? Genetically modify cats so as to remove their hunting instinct? Anonymously criticize and belittle others who have different opinions and experiences? Punish them by no longer visiting their blog or website?

So, was I really saying it's okay for my cats to kill birds? Those who interpreted the phrase in context know I did not. Perhaps it would have helped if I'd mentioned in that post that most of the things my cats catch they do not kill. Instead they try to bring them into the house to play with! Most of their catches never make it beyond the back porch, and I cannot tell you how many live birds, chipmunks, and mice we've had to catch ourselves (not so easy when they're hiding behind the washing machine!). The birds we set free, the rodents we dispose of ourselves. We finally had to lock the kitty door to one way only - out.

Still, my cats do occasionally kill birds. Do I like that? No.  Do I wish they didn't? Yes. Will I imprison them in the house because of it? No. They are doing what they were created to do and that is a necessary function on our homestead. They are earning their keep. I will not apologize for that.

Well, I'll tuck my soapbox away now for another while. The person I'm responding to will never read this because they vowed off my blog. Still, the sentiment is sadly all too common. Intolerance takes on many forms, but it always begins to create a very small, suffocating world. May we learn to respect one another enough to not to contribute to that.


Michelle said...


Dawn said...

Well said Leigh, me personaly I am not a lover of cats, I dislike the cats localy, they use my garden to deposit in and cover it up waiting for me to put my hand in it, but when we move we will have a couple of cats as rodent control, they will not be hous cats.
They will earn there keep along with everythig else.
I know some people who have house cats that never venture outside, the walk over food preperation areas, they have smelly litter trays, a cat kept in the house and not allowed to go out is not right in my book, it falls int othe same category as those who dress there dogs in clothes, its not natrual.
I have other cat owning friends whos cats happily wander around outside and will bask in the garden with birds all around them and not bother but will on occasion bring down a bird, I have watched crows in the garden attack woodpeckers, magpies raid nests of young and rats devestate birds nests, its the balance of nature. It is cruel to surpress natural instincs in animals.

Dani said...

I was never brought up with cats, so my feelings towards them are ambivalent. RMan has always had cats so he adores them

But, in nature, cats - lions, cheetahs, tigers, leopards, rooikat, cougar, lynx and "domestic" cats - of all shapes and sizes, catch whatever they are quick enough to snare - animal or human. That is the way of the natural world.

Anyone who doesn't understand that should take the time to get out into the countryside and see what happens in the natural world.

Jean said...

As Michelle said, Amen! One of our cats once brought home a grey squirrel and left it on the doormat -- think he wanted to share with us.

Leigh said...

Michelle, thanks!

Dawn, very good points. There is always a flip side of the coin. I admit that I think never allowing cats outside is cruel, even though I did that when we were apartment dwellers. Our cat became severely depressed at having to stay indoors. That said, our cats are never allowed on tables and countertops!

Dani, very good point about the rest of the cat family. I have thought that everyone should spend a year on a farm or homestead and try to grow their own food or otherwise make their living from it. It would definitely change their perspective.

Jean, I hate it when my cats do that!

Frank and Fern said...

Well said, Leigh. We all know it goes way beyond cats. Suppression is a very difficult thing to combat in it's many forms. Thanks for the thoughts.


Mama Pea said...

Unfortunately, most folks are so far removed from a "natural" life that they cannot even comprehend why things in nature happen as they do. How do you explain any of it to the person who won't eat an egg from your homestead because it "came out of a chicken's butt," and yet readily purchases and uses eggs from the grocery store?

DFW said...

Well said, as usual Leigh.

You do the things that work for you in your situation & environment. Those that read from afar will never understand that & will find ways to criticize where ever & whenever they can what they don't understand. Keep doing what works for you. It's ok to get on a soapbox every now & then.
Feels good to get it off your chest.

Mamawizzy said...

Amen to the above comments! You go! Just another example of how far away people have gotten from the truth about life.

Renee Nefe said...

After struggling for many years to get my little garden to survive, much less produce enough for me after the birds and yellow jackets attack (they seem to think all my hard work is to provide for them!) I have no sympathy whatsoever for birds of any kind. (except for the birds of prey that we have in our area...they're cool, but they don't go after the smaller birds.)

That said, we don't have a cat, but our neighbor does. While I wish that the cat would hang out in my garden fending off the birds, she chooses instead to go after the rabbits. Sigh! I like rabbits - of course I've never had a problem with them eating up my garden! I don't fault the cat for this though. It is what cats do. My dog is trained to chase off the birds.

Songbirds aren't so innocent in the plan either. You've mentioned several times how you've lost seed to birds (usually your chickens) but sometimes other birds as well. Here they go after my fruit and tomatoes (even though they don't like them!) It isn't as if your cats are killing off all the birds in your town...it is just your 5 acres. My guess is that the birds in your area have figured out that there are a few cats and they for the most part steer clear.

I think that any person who reads your blog and gets upset with how you choose to run your homestead is barking up the wrong tree. While the government may consider your homestead a hobby, it is your livelihood. In order for you to have enough to survive on you have to control the population of critters.

Kate said...

There is no life without death, and for human beings there is no living without killing. Better to look it in the eye and take responsibility for it, than look away, pretending we are not all complicit.

tpals said...

Sometimes I'm baffled by what people become passionate about. I've been criticized for letting our cats outside where they could be hurt.

Considering the amount of feed you grow and store, I don't see how you could manage without the cats.

Unknown said...

We currently live in an HOA subdivision and can't wait to get out, we are renting right now. The rule for cats here is that you need to keep them in your own yard, they are not allowed to wander. Anyone who has ever had cats knows that to try and do that would be to fight a loosing battle. We currently have no animals, we had a cat when we moved in but thought that the rules here were to cruel to keep a cat. My neighbor has a cat that likes to hunt, she tries to keep it inside but it is a cat and has the spirit to roam. I find dead birds and mice in my backyard all the time from her. I don't get angry, cats will be cats, it's in their nature to hunt, it's what they do.

Mark said...

Well said, Leigh. Balance is important as is accepting the way things are for what they are. A cat will do what a cat knows to do. It will do what it was created to do. So will snake, a rat, a rabbit, a fox, a coyote, a chicken, a goat, a Hereford steer, and all the various bugs around the place. It seems it's only people that so readily adapt to doing and living as we were never intended, and then defending it to the end.

For years I've had the same quote by Flannery O'Conner written in the upper right hand corner of my whiteboard at work: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally."

There are some things that all the hand-wringing, complaining, and wishing in the world will never change. They are what they are and we just have to get over it. There are also some things that honest sweat, real prayer, and unswerving determination can change. They are what we make them and we just have to get to it. The only question lies in knowing the difference. As much at it causes some folks to blow a gasket, you can find into which category most things fall in your Bible.

Crustyrusty said...

If you live in a rural area, especially in places like western Illinois where there is corn everywhere, you will be overrun by vermin if there are no outdoor cats. Cats will occasionally get a bird or two; it's part of the natural cycle. And sometimes the birds get their revenge as well; anyone who has watched a hawk grab a cat on the fly knows this.

Florida Farm Girl said...

Good for you. I don't like it when cats kill birds either, but the old adage "all God's critters got to eat" covers it. I'm prone to share that soapbox occasionally.

Farmer Barb said...

I, like many others, have chosen to keep chickens. I lost two of them to hawks one Spring. My mistake was to leave the buffet open during the time of year when the hawks are living here. The next year, the chicken tractor was parked over soft ground. The raccoon came calling. She had a family to feed. One night she took one, the next night, parked in an entirely different location, the other two were removed--through the locked egg door. It was May. There were raccoon babies to feed. Nature is not cruel, it is Nature. Natural living is to accept both birth and death, no matter who metes it out. People who like to judge, especially those on the Internet, are usually the kind who do not allow others the freedom to live their own lives. Nature has yet to yield to the will of man. He may think he can change the rules, but Nature always has the last word. Period. It is a dance. For every step, there is a counter step. Always. To believe otherwise is naive. Try going out in the sun and not become marked. No amount of human determination will change the reality of carnivorous life. What omnivore beside man will pass up a free meat meal?

I am now choosing to keep animals who are too big for my local climbers and flyers. The coyotes are kept at bay by sturdy fencing and electricity. It is just a choice. Not a right.

billie said...

Cats and birds can coexist fairly peacefully. We have six cats and a cat door and they go in and out on our horse farm. A wren built a nest in my horse trailer in easy reach of the cats this year - all six eggs hatched and the six baby wrens successfully fledged. The parent wrens put up a huge fuss when the babies started flying, we got in the cats for the rest of that day, and all survived at least to the point of learning to fly up into the tall trees.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Excellent post Leigh and really not just about cats. For those of us who make our living from the farm, we do indeed view life and the function of our animals differently than those who keep "pets." We once had a milk customer who insisted we move the cows away form the barn when she came because she did not want to see "their sad eyes." She thought milking was cruel. When I told her she should see how sad their eyes would get if we DIDN'T MILK them she got offended and never came back. Two other customers on the waiting list immediately took her place. Carry on my blog buddy!!

Leigh said...

Fern, we know but sadly they don't seem to get it.

Mama Pea, the disconnect is astounding sometimes, isn't it? When I used to do spinning demonstrations we'd always get folks who'd be rude because they thought sheep had to be killed for their fleece.

DFW, it's so easy to criticize from afar, isn't it!

Mamawizzy, thanks! It's tough to explain some things to folks who have no experience. The thing that is puzzling is that they believe inexperience over experience. I don't get it.

Renee, good point about birds and gardens. Every year I lose one third to one half my fruit to birds! Even that, however, is the way things are. I feel fortunate we don't have losses of 100%. I'd be working on a solution if that were the case.

Kate, very good points. No one lives in a bubble.

tpals, when we lost Catzee I had person after person tell me that if we didn't let her out we'd still have her. It became a heartless criticism after awhile. I always considered that at least she had a happy life out of doors rather than being locked up in the house all the time.

Sandra, it's hard to control cats! I hope you get a place of your own soon.

Mark, well put. You make very eloquent comments! Unfortunately human nature stubbornly wants its own way. We are the only creatures on earth who insist on rebelling against fulfilling what we were created for.

Crustyrusty, we worry about hawks (or owls) getting one of our cats, not to mention our chickens. No one is exempt from the hazards of nature.

Sue, thanks! I think folks forget that everything contributes to balance. We can outlaw deer hunting, for example, but too often the deer overpopulate and starve to death. How is that any better?

Barb, very well put and very true. Yet mankind continues to try to be in control! We forget that death is just as natural as life.

Billie, that's always the best way! Most of our cats have been rodent hunters, only occasionally we have a bird hunter. Good for you for being so observant of those wrens. I know the parents appreciated it!

Leigh said...

Donna, I was answering comments while you were posting yours! Very interesting about the customer and the cows. I take it she didn't breastfeed and experience engorgement! Again, the differences in perspective are astounding.

Anonymous said...

Nature isn't cruel, humans are. We attach human emotions and concepts to nature in order for us to understand her. Nature, in her wonderful wisdom, installed a chain of command if you will. A food chain. Bird and rodents eat seeds and insects, canines eat birds and rodents. If one is working with nature when and wherever possible then one harnesses nature to assist which is exactly what having domesticated cats is doing. Using a cats very nature to keep down a pop. :)

bornfreev said...

Well said, Leigh. I agree with your sentiments exactly!

Woolly Bits said...

nothing more to be said - though it's a pity that you used up so much of your time to write about that to explain your point of view! of course you're absolutely right - but I'd say that most people who disagree with that won't read your blog:( that often happens - instead of engaging in sensible discussion (and maybe starting to understand a different point of view) people withdraw after letting out their opinion:(

Laura said...

Well said. Two nights ago, I was awakened abruptly by a "chirrup" of a young owl and then the hoots of an adult. I then heard flapping and a panicked duck. I raced down to the coop and herded everyone inside (they used to get to come and go as they pleased) and saw an owl flying away (Barn Owl). Fortunately, the attack was apparently by the fledgling, who missed.

I love owls. I don't have much trouble with them, but have lost a chicken to one a couple of years ago. For the next week, I'll be locking the ducks up (I have a fair amount of $ tied up in them...). I have to move things around to protect the two ducks who are sitting on nests. Hopefully the new arrangements will be to their liking...

There is a balance. It's up to us to make sure that it stays that way.

Bootzey said...

The internet is rife will nutjobs who think they know better than all others. Your farm.. your choice.

Ellen and Adrian said...

Mama Pea, I've had the same problem with my husband's co-workers who thought our backyard eggs were unclean, while happily eating eggs (and baked goods) from the grocery store. He also got in trouble last week about his lunch. When asked, he said he was eating lamb and was told 'ugh. *I* don't eat *babies*.' He proceeded to advise his detractor that the chicken she bought for dinner likely lived 8-12 weeks, inside, in close confinement - while his lamb had most likely been raised for up to a year on pasture, having naturally weaned from its mother. Some people don't want to know where their food comes from. I too felt bad for the groundhogs being trapped at a museum I worked at - until they started in on the corn I had been growing there for 3 months! Still curious how people manage barn cats and fowl on their properties together - or am I anticipating more of a problem than there is likely to be?

Anonymous said...

I've been in situations where, for their own safety, my cats had to be "indoor only", and while they adapted it was not ideal. Now my cat lives outside as much as in, and he is a wonderful hunter, even taking down a packrat last summer. I know he takes the occasional bird, and I have told him he can have as many starlings as he wants (since they are not native and very destructive), but he is not to touch the mountain bluebirds. I haven't seen any blue feathers, so maybe he listened? I do find lots of partial rodents on the porch and near my car, as that is how he pays his rent. As long as he doesn't repeat the summer of catch & release (he was bringing live mice into the house and letting them go, then spent the winter catching the dumb ones. Improving the gene pool of the resident rodents, I think), I'm ok with his hunting.

Rosalyn said...

At first when I read this post I was afraid that it had been my comment to instigate it! Eek! But then I went back and checked and it was still there and didn't seem too bad. I find it interesting to read this series of comments as a discussion. I can certainly understand your point of view, Leigh, and no one could accuse of you of not caring for the environment--I have only admiration for the work that you and Dan are doing. Also, although more of a dog lover, I can appreciate cats and the degree to which they help out in a farm/homestead environment.

However, as a previous conservation biologist (by training and career, until I turned into a high school French immersion and science teacher!) I know for certain that cats have an extremely detrimental effect on songbird populations, far greater than any natural predators do. It is second only to window collisions as a cause of death in songbirds, with cats causing about 500 million deaths per year. Cats are naturally predatory, and darn good at what they do--but they don't naturally live in North American ecosystems. Although domestic cats do commit large quantities of "bird murder" each year, the real problem is feral cats--the population of which is hard to estimate because they aren't very friendly and are very good at hiding. But it's big. So perhaps the moral of the story is to keep our 2,3, or 4 barn cats, neuter and spay them, and hope they get too chubby on mice and rats and weasels and other little nuisances to jump and catch the birds that we hope to help preserve. But then they won't have more babies that will run off and live in the woods and wreak havoc on songbird nests.

For me personally it is a hard decision to make. I don't want rodent problems, and I remember as a child having a weasel kill 50 of our 75 meat chicks and we were pretty happy when my sister's cat Lucy caught the culprit and brought it to the step. I also remember hiding a dead mourning dove, one of a mated pair (the only one we had before they became more common here) in the woods so that my mom wouldn't see it and have her heart break. I remember a barn where there were two cats that had been so afraid of coyotes that they wouldn't leave the barn. To me, that was the perfect scenario--barn cats to keep vermin in check, but no unnecessary casualties. I don't know what we'll do one day, but as a conservationist I'd have a hard time justifying to myself or my similarly minded friends having an animal that damaged the local wildlife populations. However, no one else would have to justify it to me. We all make the choices that are best for us. I'll hope that it is a choice that doesn't seem to difficult to make as we transition to a more full-blown homestead life.

Sarah said...

The bottom line is that there is a "pecking order" in life if you will. Your cats aren't doing anything other than what cats are supposed to do. Is it a comfortable thought to think your pet is dining on a cute little thing? Nope but it is life. My youngest nephew is terrified of spiders (I'm not a big fan myself) but I was telling him that spiders help by eating other bugs. I've long wished for a bathouse in the yard because Kier is so allergic to mosquito bites. There is a cycle to everything and there is no point in trying to sanitize that.

Kev Alviti said...

We've considered it here but I've never liked cats. We do have a problem with mice and rats though and I'd almost prefer it to poison but then I do love the song birds. Like you said it's a difficult choice and one that's up to the individual to make. I also think that by living in a homesteading way like we do that we encourage biodiversity and more wildlife than anyone that's going to moan about it!

Leigh said...

Rabidlittlehippy, you and Barb both said the same thing basically, and it is a very good point to remember. It's very true that we humans tend to anthropomorphise everything. It's also true that it's our emotional involvement with our own preferences that are the problem. The danger lies in trying to force the natural reality into our particular viewpoint.

Victoria, thank you!

Bettina, usually I address comments in the comments. This isn't the first comment of this type that I've gotten, but they rarely disappear. Unless someone is vulgar or linking to something they're trying to sell, I leave comments. I honestly believe we need to allow one another to voice opinions, but neither do I let someone criticize me without a response. Even so, I think things like this need to be voiced on occasion, else all of our freedoms get mowed down.

Laura, very good point about balance. That's something I am contemplating deeply these days, also noting that on our homestead at least, nature always seems to be winning!

Serenity, thank you!

Ellen and Adrian, that's a sad but interesting example. I do have to say that not all cats go for birds. Our Riley, for example, completely ignores them, he's a chipmunk guy. That being said, I do take measures to protect my chicks and though I've never lost one to a cat, I lost 6 to a rat, as I mentioned. Of adult chickens, I've lost 3 to hawks. Still, Katy especially is not allowed in with the chickens!

Sue, yes I've been there too. When we lived in our apartment before we bought our property, our two cats weren't allowed out. The oldest one had been an excellent mouser at our old place, and actually went into a pretty bad depression when he was no longer allowed out. What I want to know, however, is how you broke him of catch and release! That's our problem now, LOL

Rosalyn, no it wasn't you, although I had to go back and read your comment too. You worded your opinion very nicely, which I respect. I agree that it boils down to individual choices that aren't the same for all of us.

The comment I refer to was by a person who had their blogger profile set to private. That they only had one profile view suggests they felt strongly enough about my comment to sign up on blogger just to tell me off!

I do think you'll find that the more rural you get, the less of a problem killing songbirds will become. Birds are harder to catch for one thing, plus there are plenty of vermin available! Also, not all cats go for birds. Cats seem to have individual preferences in hunting. A bird killer can easily be given away to someone else as a house pet.

Sarah, so very true! Unfortunately, the ones who want to sanitize life are very passionate about it! I do think it would be helpful for everyone to live a year on a working farm or homestead! It would help give us all a more balanced point of view.

Kev, Dan used to be an avowed cat hater. It just took the right cat, LOL. If one doesn't have cats, poisons make more sense (for example you don't have to worry about the cats eating it!). We did resort to poison once, when we had a pack of rats living under a concrete slab. It worked, but the stench! That was the really nasty part.

faedrake said...

I don't know why there is this assumption that nothing would ever die if it weren't for human meddling.

Living beings inevitably die regardless of human deeds or misdeeds. The more important thing is how they live, and how we live.

I wish that well-meaning compassionate people spent less time supporting no-kill animal shelters and more time supporting humanely raised meat.

Tina T-P said...

Well said, Leigh, well said. T.