Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hunters and Prey


There's a pair of Western Scrub Jays, hunting in our yard. Earlier this spring, they had started construction on a nest in one of our trees, but we think they ended up nesting in the neighbors' yard. The two birds are currently hard at work, feeding a little family.

The jays are particularly keen on the bees in our backyard apiary. They grab up as many bees as they can hold in their crop, sometimes stopping to rub the stingers off on a branch or fence-top.

We can hear their babies shrieking with excitement when the parents approach the nest. (Interestingly, Robb has noticed that the resident mockingbird has learned this cry, and now starts his cycle of vocalizations with the sound of hungry baby jays.) Jays are very attentive parents, usually raising only one brood a season. The parents form long-term bonds, and the young may associate with their family for an entire year. Also, jays are smart, damn smart.

Western Scrub Jays are opportunistic omnivores. On pleasant weekends, Robb and I eat breakfast outside. The backyard cats come around asking their perpetual question, "Where is ... Egg and Cheese?"

The jays are interested as well. More than once, I've stepped away from my meal and heard the distinctive sounds of a hard beak tapping on a ceramic plate.

Much as I love seeing these birds in our yard, I also despair because I fear that they -- or their babies -- will fall prey to the feral cats. I can't move the cats indoors because they're not housebroken and also because Sleeves is terrified of being trapped indoors with the Scary Humans.

This is not an idle fear. Last spring, Cardigan caught a baby jay, which I managed to wrench out of his jaws.

Later that summer, the cats killed another jay, the bird whose trust I had earned, and who would eat from my hand. I still feel like a killer and still feel physically ill when I think that I had a part in this animal's death. If it hadn't been so comfortable in our yard, if it had been more wary, it might not have been killed by the cats.

While it's enchanting to see these birds up close, I really wish they would stay further away from our backyard cats.

I won't lie. I spend a lot of energy chasing the cats away from the birds.

The jays act totally unafraid. They yell at the cats and swoop at them like dive-bombers.

But bravery is one thing, and foolishness is another.

We no longer stock the bird feeders in our back yard after we saw Cardigan leap higher than we thought possible and catch a feeding bird. The cats are survivors and, despite the fact that we feed them quite well (Sleeves has a majestic belly), they regularly feast on birds and small mammals.

I'd like to be wrong about it, but I just don't think this story is going to end well.


Stefaneener said...

Lots of things to consider, no? I actually don't mind the birds predating on the bees so much -- I figure there's a lot of bees, and it's terrifically entertaining. Maybe if it were a whole flock. . .

Sounds as though you're doing the best you can.

Anonymous said...

You have to approach the birds and clap your hands to scare them off. Those cats are quite good at catching them, even if they are bored and well fed. Ours deposited the remains of a bunny by our compost yesterday and I almost stepped in it.


Anonymous said...

My son and I were just talking about how hard it becomes when you are friends with animals at different levels of the food chain.

Let's hope the jays are smart about where they built their nest.

from Leah in Centralia, WA

sharp green pencil said...

HI there Lisa.. just a quick but heartfelt thank you for your comments on the blog.. lovely to get them as always. I am hoping for a gap to be able to catch up with everyone soon. Just had fab weekend exhibition.. financial disaster as always but wonderful spending two whole days enthusing about bees! .. bee people are , I am finding, so very nice.. guess that must include you! :)

Kristen said...

I have the opposite problem--I have tons of pests that I would love for the eight or so neighbourhood cats who regularly visit my yard to snack on, but they're too well fed and lazy. Come on, Mr. Fluffles, it's a snail--if the French will eat it, surely it's not beneath you! There aren't many birds that hang out in my garden, and the ones that do seem clever and wary enough to keep themselves safe.

Country Mouse said...

Jays are beautiful and smart. And all - well many - animals are 'mean' i.e. take whatever food they can even if it shocks and appalls us to see baby birds being snatched. If they were rare, people would ooh and aah over them, but they are common and cheeky - I like them just as well anyway! We have some nesting nearby too, Stellar's jays. I don't know if there's much difference between them behaviorally - I wonder though.

Christine said...

Would giving them collars with bells help? It's devastating to see statistics about how many songbirds are killed each year by cats (one billion in the US per year?!). I've seen a number of Arboreal Newts dead on the sidewalk, only to see them disappear the next day. I'm assuming it's the strays that wander through the yard. It seems, however that you have a very balanced, problem-solving view of things and I'm sure there's a solution in there somewhere. Can't we all just. . . get along?!

Noreen said...

I feed birds at my cottage. I've put those reflective clear plastic decals on my windows because the birds would occasionally collide with the windows and die. I felt miserable every time that happened. The decals helped a lot. This weekend a hummingbird decided he wanted an orange thing on my kitchen table near the door. He wanted it so bad he rammed the screen door and got his little beak stuck in the screen. We helped free him. This interacting with nature "stuff" is tricky. I feel like I should just watch what comes by and not try to attract...but that's so hard. I hope the cats and jays work it out.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Those jays are pretty. We have a different kind of blue jay. Living in the city, and sharing your space with critters is quite the balancing act. I don't think it's possible to achieve a perfect balance, if that makes sense. Everything we do affects our environment in some way. I think we just need to do the best we know, and nature will do the rest. I do struggle with that sometimes. We feed birds in the winter, and that means we feed the squirrels. Our neighbor asked us to move one of the feeders, because the squirrels were digging in her yard.

A long time ago, when we lived in a different home, I saw a neighbor's cat jump up and grab a bird off of our feeder. I was so mad, I went to their house to tell on their cat. I think they thought I was being a bit silly.

Thanks for your nice comment on my wildflower post. The butter and eggs are blooming now. I posted a photo on my last post.

Karen Anne said...

Kristen, You need ducks. They eat snails.


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