Earlier this week as I walked outside to go run some errands, I caught sight of Manneman – my furry garden companion – batting a fuzzy, round little thing back and forth. He seemed to thoroughly be enjoying himself, which is almost always a bad sign. I took a closer look. To my dismay, I saw that the new toy was a tiny, fledgling bird. I scooped it up, and got it out of reach of my incorrigible feline. The poor bird looked as if it was expecting to die, and it probably would have, had I been a few minutes later. But, upon closer examination, it didn’t seem injured, and I found no blood. Encouraged, I made it a temporary nest out of a lantern, put it up high – hopefully safely out of reach – and left.
When I returned, I saw to my horror that the lantern was empty! Figuring, for sure, that my little protegé was by now cat food, I scanned the ground below where I had left it. Suddenly I saw it – still and quiet by the trunk of a shrub. Meanwhile, I could hear rather intense chirping from a nearby thicket. I wondered if it was perhaps the fledglings parents lamenting the fate of their young. Relieved to find it alive, I picked it up again, and put it in a box lined with soft tissue paper. Thinking that maybe it was injured after all, I went inside and Googled the Audubon Society’s rescue page. Since it was now rather late in the day, I called them to see what I should do. I’m so glad I did! I learned a lot from the kind volunteer who answered the phone.
Contrary to what I thought, she told me that young fledglings often spend several days on the ground before they finally learn to fly. And here I had thought that only those who failed to fly ended up on the ground to become fodder for other animals! I stand corrected! July – August is the time of year when you are most likely to find aspiring flyers on the ground. This is apparently perfectly normal! The time spent on the ground is a vital part of childhood development in Birdland. She told me that the parents coach from nearby – they never ever leave their babies alone. During the time on the ground, they teach them how to find food, recognize predators, and – eventually – to fly. This would explain the vivid chirping I had heard when interrupting this process, and I felt a bit stupid. In addition, I learned that birds have two “air-bags” on their backs. When cats attack birds, these air pockets are often punctured, by either teeth or claws. The puncture wounds in themselves can heal, but what generally kills the bird are the bacteria that enter their systems via the puncture – not the hole itself. Not unexpectedly, cat bacteria does not mesh well with those of birds.
The kind volunteer apologized for “getting on her soap box” as she told me I should consider keeping our cat indoors. There are plenty of cat towers, scratching posts, and toys that would keep an indoor cat happy, she assured me. Some people even screen off their porch so that the cat can have an outdoor room from which to watch the world go by. Did I by chance have a porch to devote to this? Regrettably, I had to tell her ‘no’. I explained that I understood the very real dangers that especially manifest themselves when fledgling birds are on the ground, but that I could not consciously deprive my cat of the pleasures of being outdoors. Before we adopted him, he spent two years as an outside cat, and he would be miserable if we forced him to become exclusively indoors. In fact, he willingly spends the majority of his time indoors anyway – after two years on the streets he knows to appreciate his favorite indoor spots.
But there are things an outdoor cat owner can do. Manneman for a while, wore a bell. In his particular case, it did not appear to be helping much – a fact that was reiterated by the kind volunteer. Besides, it’s bright, metallic tinkling was terribly annoying when he moved around the house in the middle of the night. Last time I found a dead bird in my garden, I removed the useless bell. Instead, I resolutely cut his claws. As a result, he soon had to abdicate his former reign of the neighborhood as he instantly got his furry tail kicked by other neighborhood cats, but I didn’t mind that too much. A more positive effect was that I haven’t found any dead birds for a long time. But flightless baby birds on the ground..? Well, the odds are definitely stacked against them. But at least now the fact that this is the time of year to worry about that is on my radar. I’ll leave it at that – I’m most definitely not perfect…
This little fledgling did not show any sign of anything other than justified shock, so after talking with the Audubon volunteer, I released it from the box, gently put it back where I had found it, and temporarily locked up the cat. The next time I checked, I couldn’t find it, despite a thorough search through the surrounding foliage! I suppose this could mean that it became someone else’s dinner, but I am going to interpret this as a good sign that it finally learned how to fly. After, in its young life, having been roughly exposed not only to a playful cat, but also to an ignorant human, I think this particular bird is starting off its flying career more savvy than most. Here’s to a long life of enjoying the fruits and insects of my garden!
Note: Silly me – didn’t think to take photos of our little fledgling. So, I borrowed a couple of photos from the Web. Photo credit has been given to the best of my ability.