Every shortening day, the drama unfolds out our back window in the pine woods of Bend, Oregon. Varied Thrushes glowing orange and black enter the scene in the first light, foraging among pine needles that skirt manzanita bushes. A Douglas Squirrel (so familiar to us we now call him Doug) dashes in close to the living room sliding door, leaps up on a bucket, and swipes a pine cone from our fire starter stash. Mule deer flick their bodacious ears. A Hairy Woodpecker pips from a ponderosa and flies in to the suet feeder. And then we see a neighbor’s calico cat prowling closer with murder in its eyes.
“No!” I leap up, fling open the door, and our dog Pepper races out–in the wrong direction. The fleet cat flees. There’s temporary mayhem before the birds and squirrels return. Each time the feline killer appears, I rap on the window or send Pepper running. The cat has a streak of wariness and is clearly hunting every bird, squirrel, and chipmunk within the reach of its sharp claws.
I take action. This can’t go on. I feel responsible for attracting birds to feeders and to potential death from an unnatural predator–one of the millions of cats in the world that are outside killing songbirds in mind-boggling numbers. In the United States alone, outdoor cats kill 2.4 billion birds a year and are the number one direct threat to birds from humans.
To take on the cat threat and remain neighborly, I have to be strategic. First, I order two cat bibs (one large and one less bulky, yet slightly less effective). Yes, that’s right. Bibs for cats! It’s an amazing innovation. Simply hanging the neoprene bib from a cat’s collar prevents the feline predator from successfully striking forward to kill its prey. The bib is festive and doesn’t interfere with a cat’s need to protect itself from a dog or other threat. My friend Willa in Missoula has used them for years and transformed her cat “Wild” from a bird killer to a benign prowler.
In the week before the bibs arrive, I continue to be as vigilant as I can be and observe, with some anxiety, the daily parade of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and mule deer in our tangled understory of manzanita, ceanothus, currant and bitterbrush below ponderosa pines. Red-breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees zip into the sunflower feeder below my office window. Red-shafted Flickers press their stiff tails against the wood feeder for support to tap into suet attached on both sides. When a Steller’s Jay lands, the whole feeder sways like a ship in the storm.
Even a Varied Thrush will give the suet a try, but prefers to hop around the ground near its comrades–in peril from the calico cat that appears about once a day. I have the sliding window above my desk ajar and by just flicking it an inch, the cat hears the sound and evanesces like unwanted smoke.
I’ve begun a dialogue with Jon at Cat Goods (the company that makes cat bibs) and ask him for tips on approaching the neighbor. He suggests I tread lightly, and recognize many cat owners are unaware of the size and scope of the problem for birds. When telling them about cat bibs, he advises, let them know its safe for the cat and invite them to explore the Cat Goods website and check out a Youtube video from a customer to show an agile bib-wearing cat (cute too).
The bibs will arrive in two days. Meanwhile, I’m learning more about our squirrel friends. Doug the Douglas squirrel has the personality of a feisty Dachshund, chasing away the western gray squirrel that’s twice its size. The latter is handsome with a grand flourish of a tail, and is never to be mistaken for an invasive fox squirrel (fortunately there are none here). Doug also terrorizes the yellow-pine chipmunks that zip in and out of the woodpile quickly to avoid his ire. I’m grateful for all three species and our habitat that sustains them. Once abundant, both the western gray and Douglas squirrels are declining overall from loss of big trees and intact mature conifer forests. Just the other day, we noticed a second Douglas squirrel edging its way into the flow, and so far with more acceptance from Doug than I expected — a female?
Presiding over the small creatures are the mule deer that pay no attention to Doug, despite his furious chatter when they step near a favored cache of cones. Mule deer have nothing to worry about when it comes to squirrels or cats. Their nemesis? We did have a mountain lion twitching its tail by the hammock one night last summer. However, their main threat is cars hitting them, especially during fall and spring migration when they have to cross highways. The solution lies in people driving slower and in building highway overpasses and underpasses that are so successful in Montana. Meanwhile, we are fortunate to live within their home. Recently, we’ve noted rutting bucks sniffing after the does.
The bibs arrive! It’s time. I bring my gift with a small pumpkin for baking and all goes well. The neighbor seems genuinely interested in the bibs. We talk about the thrushes in the fall and the importance of the manzanita and ceanothus for cover. She likes birds, too. She thanks me. We give each other big smiles. We feel a connection to the nature of this place. I leave. My step is light. The next day? The calico cat arrives without the bib. The next day? The cat is here again without the bib. I keep shooing and wondering why?
I wait a few days and then write a politely inquiring card and leave it at the neighbor’s house. The next day? No cat. Four days have passed and no sign. I have hope that the cat may even be indoors, always the safest option for cats and for their prey. I have hope for a caring relationship with my neighbors, from borrowing a stick of butter to shoveling out a driveway after a snowstorm. I have hope we can help each other become the best stewards we can be of this rare and precious corner of the planet, starting right at home and neighbor to neighbor. And yes, I have hope to see more cats wearing bibs–have a cat you can’t keep indoors for some reason? Order a bib--and put it on the cat!