Speaking for every songbird in our city, and all the gardeners trying to create safe haven for birds in their backyards, I say, please keep your cats indoors.
According to a 2013 estimate by “Science News,” house cats and feral cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds a year. That’s billion. Most of these hunters aren’t hungry; they’re well-fed house cats. It’s their nature to kill birds, and our task to prevent it as best we can.
Birds often get mixed messages from people with birdfeeders, birdbaths and bird-attracting plants. The birds are invited in to dine, bathe and nest, only to be killed by marauding cats.
“Cats are a huge issue in our neighborhood; it’s disheartening,” says Ellen Blackstone of NPR’s BirdNote, who tells me that putting a bell on a cat is ineffective.
As autumn descends on the garden, which birds are we trying to protect? Which ones can we hope to see out our windows this time of year?
Blackstone ticks off the quintessential birds of autumn. Dark-eyed juncos are known as “snow birds” because they return in fall and winter, although a few hang out here year-round. By late fall, you’ll be hearing the nasally, metallic song of varied thrushes.
Bushtits are arriving in lively, sociable flocks. The most plentiful bird at Blackstone’s feeders now is the tiny pine siskin. Song sparrows and the larger fox sparrows fill the garden with song all through the winter months to come. Showy cedar waxwings will populate our gardens as late into fall as fruit hangs on the trees.
How can we nurture these birds through the coming winter months? Blackstone describes a garden in her North Seattle neighborhood that is particularly creature friendly. “It’s pesticide and herbicide free, with debris piles left for birds and invertebrates,” she says. The garden is planted in layers, which satisfies the needs of a variety of birds, and there are plenty of sources of clean, fresh water. Flowers and vegetables are left to go to seed for the birds and pollinators. All of us can follow suit, using our environmental savvy as a fine excuse for a slightly messy garden. And be sure to layer in bird-favorite Northwest natives like California wax myrtle, serviceberry and evergreen huckleberry.
Birds need places to hide, and fresh water for drinking and bathing. When it gets chilly enough to freeze birdbath water, Blackstone recommends an immersion heater, available at Seattle Audubon, as a welcome alternative to chipping out ice. Robins will bathe every day of the year if you keep birdbaths unfrozen through autumn and winter.
These strategies work only with live birds. Keeping cats indoors will save countless avian lives. Birds keep our gardens healthy, eat insects, pollinate plants. Most of all, our world and our spirits sorely need these songbirds to animate our gardens with their lively, singing, bustling presence.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.