For the Birds

Someone in my condo estate doesn’t like cats.
The last few newsletters have had short articles complaining that while dogs have to be kept on leashes (and no, they aren’t always) cats are allowed to roam free. The author of the article justifies this in terms dead birds around bird-feeders. I think that author doesn’t understand cats and doesn’t understand birds and doesn’t understand bird-feeders.

There are a number of types of condominiums here in Toronto, its a large city. The 2001 census put the city’s population at 2,481,494. There is the downtown as well as the suburbs. The catchment area known as the Greater Toronto Area, the area within easy commuting distance or the “bedroom suburbs” (though many are self sufficient economic centers in their own right) has a population about twice that but at much lower density – 4,682,897. The archetypal condominium, such as the TV adaption of John D McDonald’s novel is mainly a downtown phenomena. Or at least part of the ‘core’, the main intersections. The burbs have lower level condos, and by far the most common are condominium town houses. There are generally two types – the high density ones where the road come right to the front door, there is no garden and the ground floor is the garage; and the low density ones like the one I live in. “Henry Heights” is really a piece of parkland with some houses scattered though it. The ratio of space occupied by building to the amount of free space, lawns, trees, flowerbeds is less than some of the nearby ‘luxury’ single houses.

I’m well known among the other condo owners for my giant sunflowers and for taking my cats for walks. I sometimes say that once you’ve managed programmers, herding cats isn’t that difficult.

When I lived in an apartment midtown I took Ulla
walking on a leash. She was quite happy staying on the sidewalk and like a small child enjoyed walking on the kerb stones or low walls surrounding gardens as we passed. I kept her on the leash in case she ever bolted onto the road.

But the reality is that walking with cats is a cooperative matter. They are of dogs, they walk with you because they want to walk with you. You can’t drag them along. If you try to they will slip out of the collar or harness. Cats are amazingly flexible. A neighbour keeps his dog ‘tethered’ on a long leash in the garden. You simply could not do that with a cat. I’ve seen mine wriggle out like Harry Houdini.

So walking is a cooperative manner. Out the front door and the cat decides to go left or right and you keep up. If the cat stops to smell the flowers (cats have a very strong sense of aesthetics) you stop too. You do NOT try dragging the cat along. It doesn’t work.

So while it looks like you’re taking the cat for a walk, the ‘who’ of it is debatable.

But around the park-that-is-this-condo I don’t use Ulla’s leash. She’s happy to walk with me, she’s quite ‘bonded’. She may play peek-a-boo in the flowers or chase a squirrel up a tree – Why do squirrels think cats can’t follow them up a tree? – but she’s not a climber. None of my cats are.

Which get us to the birds.

Personally, I think the local birds come in two categories and are quite easy to distinguish.

First, there are the stupid ones. These are easy to identify because they are on the ground. Yes, the same ground as the cats. I was walking with Ulla last year and we saw some way ahead some birds on the front lawn of one of my neighbours. The lawn must have been reseeded as there were a lot of small birds – don’t ask, me what breed – there.

I stopped. Ulla stopped. Ulla sunk to the ground and crawled along the path. There was no cover. She crawled up the front path of the house. She’s very good about sticking to paths. There still wasn’t any cover for her. She then gave up; she stood up and walked over to the birds, right into the middle of them, and swiped one. a couple of seconds later the rest looked up and most – but not all of them flew away. Not far away. Most were less than 100 feet away and most of those remained on the ground.

All this time the bells on her collar were tinkling every time she moved. The birds were oblivious.

Ulla picked up the bird she had hit and carried it back to me. More than anything she looked like a small black Labrador retriever. She looked up at me with her ‘prize’.

“I don’t want, it. Take it back”.

She looked upset. I took the bird from her. It was still alive, just stunned. I held it in my open hands and after a few seconds it came round and flew off.

“Home!” I said. Ulla was reluctant to follow. There were still birds on the ground, many had come back to feed on that same lawn. I walk off homeward but Ulla was slow to follow.

As I arrived at the front door she came bounding up to me. She had another bird in her mouth. It was bigger than she was and flapping and struggling.

“No! Enough! Let it go!”

She let it go and it flew off.

As I said, stupid birds.

But not all birds are stupid. There are some swallows that nest in the entrance to our underground parking lot. They nest high and don’t walk around on the ground. They are also very defensive. The first spring they were there I took Ulla for a walk and one path goes within 25 feet of the entrance to the parking lot. We were buzzed by the swallows. They dive bombed Ulla and kept it up until she ran off then they turned their attention to me. I stood my ground and they buzzed progressively closer.


Then as one flew close to my head I brought my hand up and snatched. Of course I missed, but the swallows were smart enough to know the game had changed. They flew off and perched on the pipes. I looked around and realized they were trying to lead me away from their nests. I walked off and left them.

Ulla will now not go near the entrance to the parking lot.

Some birds are stupid and some are smart. Swallows are smart. The cat’s aren’t going to catch them!

But Ulla still brings home ‘flying friends’ to play. Of course their idea of ‘play’ and hers aren’t quite the same, but she doesn’t kill them. And I have to job of retrieving the poor frightened creatures from behind the hi-fi or from the top of book-cases and releasing them.

So when I read in the newsletter

”… responsible cat owners should be certain to affix a bell to their cat’s collar to negate the opportunity for successful wild bird attacks!”

I get to wonder if we’re talking about the same cats and the same birds. Ulla wears a bell and she still finds feather friends to bring home to play and introduce to me.

That same author goes on to say

“The body count around bird feeders is unacceptable”.

So I look at my neighbour’s bird feeders. They are all well of the ground. They are usually on a dedicated post or something like a giant shepherd’s crook. I can’t see a cat climbing them. I’ve never seen cat-mangled birds beneath them.

To be honest, all the domesticated cats I’ve known bring their ‘playmates’ home, so I get to wonder. There is more wild-life out there than domesticated cats. I won’t leave my cats out at night.

And lets not forget that there are some very stupid birds out there.

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