Nature appeals to me, attracts my attention, directs my thoughts. There are few living things in this world that can evoke a negative thoughts. I am filled with a sense of wonder in the presence of tiny ants and towering old trees. Despite this, there is one animal that I come close to often that causes me some internal conflict – our neighbours cat Oliver.
Cats although they have been domesticated for many centuries, have retained the ability to hunt (some may argue this is a bad thing). They have strong flexible bodies, sharp teeth and claws and and very good hearing. Despite the fact that we have spoiled them, kept them warm indoors and provided them with some very easy meals, they haven’t lost the natural ability to hunt and catch prey.
I have been a dog person from a very young age. There were always dogs at home, it was an easy choice. I didn’t get close to many cats – due to the dogs! But now, for the first time, there is a cat in my life, when he decides to call by. Anyone who knows me, or follows my posts will know I am a bird lover. Sometimes I also resemble a bird, with my feather-brained behaviour, but that’s beside the point! Anything that tweets, has my interest – even if it is 5am and I need to sleep! When we moved into our new place, it came with a small garden and we decided to try to bring the birds a little closer. We have hung some feeders and a nest box, which to our delight has some residents. I say delight, but it does bring mixed feelings at times, especially when the cat is nearby.
Cats in the UK have been estimated to catch 275 million prey items each year, 20% of the prey caught are birds (The Mammal Society – see paper here). That’s 50 million birds killed by cats in the UK alone every year. This is staggering, but read on. The most common birds caught by cats are house sparrows , blue tits, starlings and black birds but theses species are not declining in number. According to the RSPB (see page here), although cats catch a large number of birds (among other things) there is no scientific evidence to show that they are threatening bird species. This puts my mind at rest, a little.
Nature is wonderful but I worry sometimes. Where do we fit in, how can we help or avoid causing harm? It’s a big question.
The war started today. Up until now there have been some tolerated advancements, but today war was announced after a vicious assault on our resident guests. The morning started normally. I dragged myself out of bed and jumped in the shower, but while dressing I heard a strange noise outside in our garden. I peeped out through the curtains and one of the two neighboring cats (that I’ve meet) was sitting under our nest box. The neighboring cats have visited our garden before, and were greeted with some unfriendly noises and some flying missiles (usually chick peas!) and kindly left. This time it was different.
I threw on the rest of my clothes went out into the garden and the eager cat soon withdrew it’s forces and retreated. Yesterday I had taken a peep in the box and was absolutely delighted to see (and hear!) 4 tiny great tit chicks among the eggs in the box. When they are born they are blind, naked (a funny pink) extremely vulnerable and have HUGE mouths so the parents can easily feed them. New life had begun in our garden, and I was determined to try and protect it.
But this morning, when I opened the box it was completely different. When I looked in I couldn’t make sense of what I saw. It appeared that the nest was on it’s side and I couldn’t figure out where the birds, chicks or eggs were. I panicked! Distraught I called Rasmus from his bed and asked him to help me. At first he didn’t understand my ramblings, but when he looked in the box he understood. He was braver than me and described what he could see. The adult birds and chicks were at the bottom of the wooden box below the nest.
I was really in shock and didn’t know what to do. If we left the nest and baby birds in this way there is no doubt that they would die. The tightly woven nest keeps the chicks warm and in the right place. I considered phoning a friend to ask for his advice, but it was 7am on a Monday, I didn’t think he would appreciate it.
I made the decision, we had to fix this, we had to try and fix this. We worked together quickly and carefully to try and restore “normality”. Firstly we needed to remove (or flush out) the adults who were desperately trying to keep the chicks warm (temperatures had dropped below freezing last night). I carefully put my hand into the box and removed one of the birds and placed it in a small cotton bag. This is a technique used when ringing birds, to keep them safe while waiting to ring them. When we attempted to remove the second bird, it flew out to safety.
With the adults out we carefully removed the nest and placed it in a safe place. It is very well constructed, almost solid and was easy to handle. Then we started with the tiny chicks. They were about 3cm long and I was afraid to pick them up using my hands so we got a tea spoon from the kitchen. We warmed it up and used it to carefully pick them up and put them into the cup of the nest. At the start I could only see two of the chicks moving but as I picked them up one by one they wiggled a little and I was relieved to know they were still alive. There was one unhatched egg left, so it was placed in the cup of the nest also.
Once they were back in the nest we carefully positioned nest with chicks and egg back into the box. We repositioned the box and I placed the adult bird back into the box. It was all done very quickly and hopefully harmlessly. We breathed a small sigh of relief and crossed our fingers.
We aren’t exactly sure what happened. My guess is that the cat climbed up to the box and either got it’s paw into the hole or somehow opened the lid and attempted to take the adult or one of the chicks. I am a little shocked at how angry it has made me. I know that domestic cats kill millions of small birds every year, but I am going to do my best to prevent them taking the ones in my garden (I refrain from calling them mine, they are wild birds after all).
Thankfully after I returned from Danish class this morning all seemed to be back to normal. I listened closely to the box and could hear the chicks little “peep peep” calls and watched the adult birds take it in turns to carry food into the nest. The crisis this morning (and our intervention) doesn’t seem to have disturbed them to much. They adults do seem very cautious about entering the nest, spending quite a bit of time moving around the garden before going inside. Maybe they are making sure it’s safe before going inside, where they are almost trapped in a way.
We have made a few alterations to the box and it’s surrounds, in the hope that it might be a little more “cat proof”. I have also purchased a weapon (water gun!) to assist in deterring the enemy from attacking again.
It’s been a very stressful morning but fingers crossed things will progress as they should over the next few weeks and the chicks will get to see the big bad world. I didn’t want to disturb the birds and more than necessary, so have no photos from today.