Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.

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Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org.

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch, https://nestwatch.org/, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.

 

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Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

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Eulogy for an indoor cat

joey-indoor-cat-by-barb-gorges

Joey the indoor cat. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 1, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Eulogy for an indoor cat.”

By Barb Gorges

Today I write a eulogy for Joey, an ordinary orange and white house cat who lived with our family.

I offer the details of her life as an example of the advantages of an indoor cat.

Joey died in the fall at the age of 18 ½ years old. She was my writing companion, sometimes draped over my left shoulder, sometimes over my lap. She exuded enough cat hair to melt down my previous laptop by clogging up the fan.

She was opinionated. She talked about a lot of things, her self-assured gaze drilling into you, assessing you.

Joey and her brother were products of a liaison between an unknown father and a footloose mother belonging to a friend. Our boys, in grade school and junior high then, enjoyed building climbing gyms for the kittens and playing catch and release cat toy games with them.

We took the cats outside occasionally on harness and leash, but Joey’s brother soon refused after stepping on a bee and getting stung.

Joey was always the one to look for before opening a door. It wasn’t that she wanted to go outside. She just wanted to go to the other side, whether into the basement or into a closet. If she did get out the front door, all we had to do was quietly leave the door open, circle around behind her, where she was quivering under a bush, and gently herd her towards the door.

However, one time she escaped without us realizing it right away. It took three days for her to come home and start pounding on the aluminum storm door. We were the only happy people that week after 9/11.

One good reason to keep your cat indoors is so you don’t have to worry about them. Of course, you could build them a “catio”—safe enclosed space for them to enjoy the outdoors. The enclosure would also prevent your cat from hunting local wildlife.

Even if it isn’t important to you to save billions of animals each year—birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—from domestic cats, if you have children, you don’t want them in contact with cats that roam outdoors.

Cats are the hosts for toxoplasma gondii, a parasite with eggs that persist in soil. We know it causes serious health problems for pregnant women who come in contact with cat feces. But we now know that a large percentage of the global human population is infected and studies suggest toxoplasma gondii can cause behavioral and personality changes and is associated with disorders including schizophrenia.

Outdoor cats, whether owned or feral, are a bigger and more complicated problem than we ever expected. You’ll want to read “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer,” by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella, neither of whom are cat haters.

For an introduction to the book, see the video of Marra’s talk last month at www.AllAboutBirds.org. Search with the term “cat wars.”

One moment Joey was a tiny kitten, and the next moment an adolescent adventurer, then an unflappable middle-aged cat who would still perform amazing acrobatics to catch miller moths buzzing ceiling lights.

And then she became my elder, content to follow the daily rotation of sunny spots around the house, lounging among the house plants while watching birds at the feeder outside.

I believe Joey and her brother, who died of natural causes a few years ago, had better lives, longer lives, than if they had to roam outside in the hazardous world. I know I’ve had a better life because they were inside with me.

In Joey’s memory, please work to keep cats off the street.

xxx

 

To feed or not to feed birds?

Bird feeder

House Finches mob our sunflower seed tube feeder. The wire fencing is meant to keep squirrels and bigger birds out. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 29, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “To feed or not to feed? Local birdwatcher battles with whether her birdfeeder is a good idea.”

2014 Update: Besides www.abcbirds.org, check out bird feeding information at the Project FeederWatch website, http://feederwatch.org.

By Barb Gorges

To feed or not to feed, that is the question this time of year.

On one side are the purists who say bird feeders are an unnatural source of food for birds. They blame the invasion of the East Coast by a western bird species, the house finch, on feeding. They’ll point to avian diseases transmitted when unnaturally high numbers of birds congregate in the same location day after day.

The purists will mention birds die when they fly into windows near feeders or when they are attacked by loose cats. They argue that some birds may decide not to migrate if they have a ready food source. That is true for the Canada geese in Holliday and Lions Park.

But let’s keep this discussion centered on the songbirds fond of sunflower seeds.

The purists are right: A bird in its native habitat does not need supplemental feed to survive the winter. If its preferred seed crop had poor production or becomes covered in snow, it will fly. Grosbeaks, redpolls, waxwings, crossbills and siskins are all noted for travelling when they need food, sometimes hundreds of miles from their expected wintering grounds.

Yes, the backyard feeding station can be hazardous to small birds, but probably not any more so than natural predators and hazards.

So why feed birds? Do it for your own enjoyment. Do it for the cheerful chatter, the bright colors, the bustle and hustle. If watching fish swim in a bowl relieves stress, as I’ve heard, then watching birds out the window not only relieves stress, but is life affirming. It is for me.

Wildlife is elusive enough that most people have little contact with it unless they hunt or fish or have spotting scopes or long lenses on their cameras. Without some other kind of personal relationship, how can we expect the general population to begin to buy into any kind of conservation ethic? Most wild animals are too dangerous to approach or feed. Chickadees seldom are.

Is it important to have a conservation ethic? Yes. What makes wildlife and land healthy makes people healthy. If you want the footnotes and scientific references, read one of Michael Pollan’s recent books.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about ethical bird feeding. For more information see the American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org.

Grow diversity in your yard by providing native flowers, shrubs and trees for shelter and habitat, and even food. Reduce or eliminate pesticide use. Pesticides are toxic to birds and can kill insects beneficial to them. Even seed eating birds feed their young insects.

Provide water and keep it clean and fresh. If you don’t offer food, water will attract birds. Get one of those little heaters meant for bird baths or dog water dishes or use a portable pan or plastic dog food dish you can bring inside to thaw the ice.

Feed the good stuff, black oil sunflower seed, and thistle seed if you can afford it. Forget the mixes with red and white milo which tend to attract the non-native house sparrows and Eurasian collared-doves. They compete well enough with our native birds already.

You don’t need to run a soup kitchen. A couple of feeders are enough. If the birds empty them in the morning, then wait until mid-afternoon or the next morning to refill them. We don’t want to upset the natural balance too much.

Keep feeders clean. At our house we no longer use the feeders with the little saucers at the bottom—those get really gross. Our feeders are hung over the concrete patio so we can sweep up the debris regularly. If the weather gets warm, it is important to wash the feeders weekly before organisms can grow. If you notice sick birds, stop feeding for a week and clean everything.

Keep feeders within three feet of the window, so birds will be aiming for the perches instead of the glass or at least won’t hit the glass so hard. Leave the window screen on so birds will bounce off, or put decals on the outside of the window to break up the reflection. If feeding birds is for your enjoyment, there’s no point in putting the feeders where you can’t see them easily.

Keep your cat indoors—they look better if they haven’t lost the tips of their ears to frostbite. If it isn’t your cat lying in wait under the feeder, then send the dog out for awhile to clear the area.

If you won’t keep your cat indoors, make sure it doesn’t have a place to hide in ambush within 25 feet of your feeder. And if you can’t do that, don’t feed birds.

If you have trouble with deer horning in, either don’t feed the birds or put the feeders where troublesome wildlife can’t reach them.

If sharp-shinned hawks start picking off seed-eaters at your feeder, congratulate yourself on attracting the next level in the food chain. Life in the wild is about death as well.

Get a field guide from the book store or the library and find out what birds are visiting. Take a close look at the LBJs and LGBs (little brown jobs and little gray birds) and you might be surprised how many kinds you’ve attracted. Many are just here for the winter so enjoy them while you can.

When birds look like they need help

fledgling

A baby bird is hand-fed at the Allen Centre. Because this bird has feathers, it has graduated from nestling to fledgling and probably fell or jumped out of its nest. Parents usually feed fledglings wherever they are.

Published May 9, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “They look helpless but they probably don’t need rescuing. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero, but is that tiny bird on the ground in dire straits?”

2014 Update: The Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which has a federal license to treat wild birds, has developed a program informally known as “Nestling Nursemaids.” People are trained to care for nestlings in their home, receiving a food mix designed for them, then care for them until they can be released.

By Barb Gorges

Nothing is as appealing as rescuing a helpless baby bird fluttering on the ground. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero. Becoming one appears to be as easy as scooping up the tiny bird, but is that the right thing to do?

Laura Conn, veterinary technician, knows first hand how many times a year nestlings are rescued because they all seem to end up at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic where she works.

“People find them on the ground or don’t see Mom for awhile, or they want to remove a nest from the threat of outdoor cats,” Conn said.

Last year it was 39 common grackles, a dozen robins and well over 50 house sparrows besides an assortment of other bird species.

“It can be a couple nests a day. Sometimes because of construction, workers will bring them in,” said Conn.

The clinic’s standard advice is that unless birds are in immediate danger, it is safer to return them to the nest. “But everyone wants to bring them in,” said Conn.

One myth is that a baby bird alone on the ground has been abandoned. However, if it has feathers already, it may have been pushed out of the nest by its parents who are probably nearby, keeping an eye on the youngster as it makes the transition to independence.

This would be especially true of birds that hatch precocial young, the young of meadowlarks, killdeer and other ground nesting birds. The chicks hatch with feathers and can practically run as soon as they depart the shell.

Altricial young are those helpless, naked nestlings like robins and sparrows that need a few weeks for feathers to grow in.

If the nestling is found completely or semi-featherless, the best thing to do is put it back in the nest. If the nest has been destroyed, fashion one from a basket or bucket.

The second myth is that once a human has touched a baby bird, the parents will abandon it. Not true, said Conn.

As for marauding cats, Conn said young birds probably have a better chance of surviving under the protection of an angry parent bird than if they are brought into the clinic.

The rate of survival of young birds transferred to the clinic is one in three.

At the clinic the bird is assessed for damages. Falling may produce injuries making the bird impossible to rehabilitate. Injuries from cats are seldom seen since there’s usually nothing left of the baby bird after a feline encounter, Conn explained.

If the nestling is in good shape, it is popped into the incubator. Then it’s time to mix up special mash, either meant for young poultry or special mixes for wild birds.

A rescued baby bird needs feeding every two hours, at least until 10 p.m., when the last clinic employee goes home. All the employees pitch in at the height of nestling season, even the front desk, said Conn.

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic is the only local facility with the necessary federal permit for handling wild birds. It is not legal to tend wild birds without a permit.

Robert Farr, the clinic’s founding veterinarian, said he would be interested in hearing from anyone with previous experience who would like to help by taking orphans home. Volunteers can work under the clinic’s permit and the clinic will provide the food.

Conn has been caring for baby birds since she started at the clinic as a volunteer 19 years ago. While injured large wild birds also come in, such as the great horned owl which was recently recovering from tangling with a barbed wire fence, most are sent on to the veterinary hospital in Fort Collins. But small birds are cared for until their release.

Ducklings are also brought in occasionally, but said Conn, “We try to find someone to take them quick—they don’t do well here.”

Some birds that come in are very prone to stress and succumb quickly while others seem hardier, said Conn.

Some summers, it seems like all the young survive and other summers they don’t. The older the nestling is, the better its chances of surviving. Some birds just seem to be tougher, like robins.

Depending on how old the bird was when it came in, it can take two or three weeks before it is ready for release.

First, it has to be able to eat on its own. “It’s hard to train them to eat,” said Conn. “We can’t do it as well as their mothers. And they have to be able to fly well on their own, too.”

Typically, the birds are taken to the park where there are plenty of trees, since most of the rescued young are tree-nesting species. Sometimes employees will release the birds in their own backyards where they can leave food out, but the young birds don’t stay around long.

Rescuing a helpless young bird is a noble act, but knowing when a bird needs rescuing is even nobler.

How to help wild birds:

Dazed adult bird on ground

Most likely it has run into a window. Carefully set it on a branch where a cat can’t reach it while it recovers. If birds often hit your window, consider applying a shiny decal to the outside of the glass, or hang netting or something shiny in front of it during the spring and early summer.

Injured adult or young bird

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic routinely provides assessment and first aid. Call 635-4121. For hawks and owls and other large species, please consult the staff on how best to transport the bird to avoid further injury to it or injury to you.

Feathered young bird on ground

Most often, the parent birds are waiting for you to go away so they can feed their almost independent youngster. So, go away! However, if the neighbor’s cat is crouched nearby, see if you can get the youngster to perch on a tree branch.

Featherless young bird on ground

Try to return it to its nest. Retired wildlife biologist Art Anderson said that if the young are about the same age or size, any nest will do.

Damaged nest

If the nest has broken or can’t be set back up, make one from a basket or bucket filled with dry leaves and grass. Attach it to the original location, if it is safe, or nearby. Place the remains of the old nest and the young birds in it and the parent birds will find them.

Ground nesting birds

During prime nesting season, May through mid-July, refrain from mowing the prairie or allowing dogs and cats off leash. Planting trees also adversely affects the survival of ground nesting birds such as killdeer and meadowlarks. Predators—hawks and eagles—will use the trees for perches while they scan for prey.

Habitat improvements

Tree-nesting birds benefit from the planting of more shrubs and trees for food and cover. Cover is the vegetation into which they can disappear to avoid predators or bad weather. Think about adding a water source too. And eliminate pesticides. Check the National Audubon Society’s “Audubon at Home” Web site at www.audubon.org/bird/at_home.

Keep cats indoors

Cats don’t need to be allowed to run free, killing small birds and animals, in order to have a full and happy life. Just ask any contented kitty lying on a cushy pillow in a sunny window. Plus, indoor cats have longer and healthier lives. For help in turning your mini-tiger into a real house cat, visit the American Bird Conservancy site at www.abcbirds.org/cats or get information from the Cheyenne Pet Clinic.

Wild bird rehabilitator permit

The first requirement is 100 hours of experience. Check other qualifications at www.fws.gov. Look under Permits, then Applications, then “MBTA,” short for Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Or call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Permit Office, 303-236-8171.

What’s Fluffy hunting today? The cost of housecats hunting

Cat watching fish

Just because cats love to hunt doesn’t mean they can’t be happy chasing toys instead of birds, or watching wildlife through the window.

Published May 11, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The lion inside: Do you know what your hunting machine is up to today?”

2014 Update: Check with the American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org, for more information about the bird – cat conflict. The companies carrying cat enclosure and fencing products listed at the end are all still in business.

By Barb Gorges

When you see a cat walking along the top of your backyard fence or concealed under a bush ready to spring, what comes to mind?

— “Another pesky predator after my chickens!”

— “I wonder if that’s the cat that left nothing but a pile of feathers under my bird feeder?”

— “Fluffy! Where have you been the last five days? I’ve been worried sick.”

All of these responses illustrate aspects of the issue of domestic cats roaming the outdoors.

But the impacts of house and feral cats on wildlife is a growing problem – especially as felines eclipse dogs as the most popular pets in the United States.

If more cat owners knew how harmful their pets can be to birds and ground-nesting mammals, experts say, they might be more careful about letting these hunting machines loose in the yard.

Cats—predators or prey?

The issue of cats on the loose heated up last month when Wisconsin sportsmen voted to recommend feral cats be classified as an unprotected species, allowing them to be hunted.

The reasoning behind the vote was that domestic cats compete with native species like hawks and owls for prey.

Cats’ impact is estimated at millions of bird deaths every year in this country and probably more than a billion deaths of small mammals. Also, feral cats often carry diseases that endanger domestic and wild animals as well as people.

While the Wisconsin sportsmen want their recommendation to go to the legislature, the governor has said he will not sign any bill allowing cat hunting.

But Wyoming statutes classify stray cats with the red fox, coyote, porcupine, raccoon and skunk as predators that may be hunted without a license all year [where hunting is allowed].

While Wisconsin won’t be implementing hunting policies like Wyoming’s any time soon, the discussion has been successful in raising awareness of the feral cat problem.

The impact on birds

Where do roaming cats come from? A surprising number are companion animals of people who regularly let their cats out.

A study by Carol Fiore and Karen Brown Sullivan at Wichita State University examined the hunting habits of 41 pet cats allowed outdoors.

They found that 83 percent of the cats killed birds. They also verified the deaths of 4.2 birds per cat per year, but added that kills undoubtedly were under-reported.

[Few cats brought kills home. However, fecal analysis for less than half of the cats (less than half the owners provided indoor litter boxes) showed that they were eating far more birds than their owners were aware of.]

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the most prolific cat hunters had been declawed. That dispelled the myth that a well-fed, or clawless, cat doesn’t hunt.

Fiore and Brown also found that 43 percent of the bird kills happened in May and June. That coincides with the nesting season.

Non-game bird biologist Andrea Cerovski of the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish said ground nesting birds and those that nest low in shrubs are the most susceptible.

A fledgling can’t sustain flight for long, and even young raptors can have problems with cats. She said waterfowl are also susceptible when they molt and are waiting for new flight feathers to grow.

Since cats are not a part of the natural ecosystem, Cerovski said, they are particularly hard not only on birds, but also on amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.

Each natural predator species fills a niche in the ecosystem in balance with its prey, Cerovski said. But cats kill additional prey. That means the populations of prey species might not reproduce enough to keep up, so the natural predators have less to eat and their populations drop as well.

Susceptible ground nesting species in this area include vesper, lark, savannah and grasshopper sparrows; lark bunting; western meadowlark; and killdeer. Cats also can disrupt nesting ducks and geese as well as game birds since most of them also nest on the ground.

A paper published by the Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law says that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it unlawful to kill migratory birds. The owner of a cat that kills them could conceivably be charged.

Few birds survive a cat encounter. Veterinarian Robert Farr cares for injured birds.

“I don’t see a lot of injured songbirds,” he said. “Most of the time if a cat gets a bird, that’s it.”

Colonies of feline hunters

In a study published by The Wildlife Society in 1999, two California parks were compared for their populations of feral cats in relation to the number of birds found at the parks.

One park had no feral cats; the other had a colony of 25 cats that were fed daily. There were twice as many birds seen in the park without cats. Two ground-nesting species were not seen at all in the park with cats.

Cat colonies begin when owners fail to find lost cats or owners dump unwanted pets. The homeless cats then gather where there is garbage or someone puts out food.

Sue Castaneda, director of the Cheyenne Animal Shelter, said cats are not allowed to run loose in Cheyenne. Although no licensing is required, cats must be tagged for rabies.

But according to Castenada, few stray cats wear tags.

Of the 2,431 cats picked up or turned in to the shelter last year, only 57 were reclaimed.

Veterinarian Karen Parks, owner of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne, agreed that in this area, cats don’t get the same respect as dogs.

“This is a human caused problem,” she said. “(Cats) are looked at as disposable property.”

While she knows cat colonies are unpopular with wildlife biologists, the managed cat colony is a compromise that suits her, Parks says.

She said such colonies can be found everywhere in town, including behind her clinic.

Three years ago she trapped, neutered and vaccinated 13 cats and began feeding. Since then, there have been no kittens. The colony is down to nine cats, and although two new felines showed up, they appeared tame and Parks was able to trap them and find them homes.

Parks’ colony is unusual. Other managers suffer from burnout or depletion of funds trying to keep up with neutering and vaccinating the new cats that move in.

Vaccination is an equally important part of Parks’ program.

The American Bird Conservancy says that cats are the domestic animal most frequently reported as rabid. Feral cats can transmit several diseases to native wild cats like mountain lions, bobcats, and the Florida panther. They also carry diseases transmissible to humans.

Currently, Parks sends six or seven feral cats a week to Colorado State University for spaying, neutering and vaccination before returning them to where they were trapped. She said it gives veterinary students experience and, if no other cats were ever abandoned, would eventually be the end of cat colonies.

Roaming is risky for cats

Parks said 85 percent of her clients keep their cats indoors or supervise them outdoors.

The idea that cats are smart and can fend for themselves is inaccurate: the life span of the average stray cat is only three years, said Tara Knight, Parks’ assistant.

According to the Humane Society, “Cats kept exclusively indoors often live to 17 or more years of age.”

Farr said 95 percent of feline injuries he sees are caused by outdoor hazards. Cats are hit by cars, preyed on by coyotes, get in fights, develop wound infections or are poisoned by antifreeze. They can also be attacked by dogs and abused by people.

Tips for keeping both your cat – and wild birds – safe

Keeping cats safe

Spay or neuter your cat

Veterinarian Karen Parks of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne said she has no tolerance for clients’ desires to let their cats produce litters. Cheyenne Animal Shelter statistics show there are plenty of cats that need homes without adding more kittens.

Keep your cat indoors

The American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign, www.abcbirds.org, has many ideas for turning outdoor cats into happy indoor cats. Play with them!

Outdoor enclosures

Build or buy an outdoor enclosure where your cat can safely be left. Check with the SafeCat Outdoor Enclosure, www.just4cats.com, The Cat Enclosure Kit, www.cdpets.com, or Kitty Walk, www.midnightpass.com.

Adopt a friend for your cat

Consider adopting a companion cat or dog of the opposite sex.

Grooming and cleaning

Trim claws every week or two. Scoop the litter box daily. If you use clumping litter, it needs to be changed only every two to four weeks.

Don’t feed stray cats

Take them to the animal shelter. They may be someone’s lost pet. If not, adopt them, get them spayed or neutered, vaccinate them and make them an indoor cat.

Keeping birds safe

Putting a bell on a cat doesn’t work because birds don’t associate its tinkling noise with danger. Keeping cats indoors or under control is the only solution.

But what about your neighbor’s cat?

–Ask your neighbor to keep the cat indoors or in an outdoor enclosure. If the neighbor does not, humanely trap the cat and take it to the shelter and explain to whom it belongs.

–Keep bird feeders away from places where cats may hide. Try placing poultry or rabbit wire fencing around bird feeders and bird baths. The fence need only be 2 feet high and 4 feet in diameter. If a cat tries to jump over it, it gives birds a chance to fly away.

–Keep your cat in your yard, or keep other cats out, by installing cat-proof fencing. Two brands are the Cat Fence-In System, www.catfencein.com, and Affordable Cat Fence, www.catfence.com. Both are mesh netting systems attached to the top of the fence.

Spring birds visit backyard

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbirds nest in the cattail marshes around Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 31, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Backyard beckons bevy of birds.”

2014 Update: We have had 79 bird species visit or fly over our backyard so far.

By Barb Gorges

It’s hard to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner these days without picking up the binoculars to admire the birds on my backyard wall.

When I e-mailed my last column to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, mentioning the paucity of birds in my yard and all the sightings in everyone else’s, a little bird must have been sitting on the wire listening in.

The next day, May 11, my yard was inundated with pine siskins, goldfinches and chipping sparrows, all accented by a black-headed grosbeak, Bullock’s oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.

A lazuli bunting showed up, too, and came back with half a dozen friends. They look like small eastern or western bluebirds, with robin-colored, red breasts.

It turns out the buntings like millet, something I usually don’t put out because it attracts house sparrows. Dave Felley gave us half a bag when he moved so we’ve been spreading it out on the top of our concrete-block wall. The buntings have been lining up shoulder-to-shoulder with the mourning doves every day since.

When I observed a house finch drinking out of the dog’s water dish, I decided it was time to try the Solar Sipper again. It’s like a fancy dog dish with a removable black plastic bowl inside a red plastic bowl.   It comes with a black lid that’s supposed to absorb heat and keep the water from freezing in winter. The lid has a hole in it for birds to stick their heads through and get a drink.

The birds never learned to use it but the dog learned to knock off the lid and drink.

This time I put it on the back wall without the lid, and birds are using it. The grackles threw in some stale bread and hard raisins and retrieved them when they got soggy. But I still caught a grackle using the real dog dish on the back step.

The green-tailed towhee showed up a week after everyone else. He’s between robin and sparrow size, and he holds his tail up at a right angle. His greenish-gray coloring makes him invisible where he hangs out under the bushes, unless you see the flashy white patch under his chin or his rust-colored cap.

I had three people tell me about western tanagers in their yards before I saw one in my neighborhood. He was drinking water puddled in a crack in the street. These tanagers are so tropical looking–orange head, yellow body and black and white wings.

You might mistake a black-headed grosbeak for a robin, until you look more closely. They are more orange than robin-red, their heads are blacker, and their wings and tails are spotted with white. Their thick “gross”—or big—beaks are for cracking seeds rather than drilling for worms.

The rose-breasted grosbeak looks pretty much the same, but instead of orange it has a white belly and a dark pink bib. I’ve now seen one in the yard four days out of 14. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough the other days.

Other than mourning doves and robins, I don’t expect any of these spring birds to nest here. Most are on their way to the mountains or farther north.

Some birds get a very early start with nesting and breeding. We’ve gone out listening for owls in February because that’s when owls set up their territories and hoot at their rivals.

Meridan rancher Dave Hansen was out branding May 19 when he noticed two great horned owls toddling around his home pasture. Had they blown out of the nest?

It isn’t unusual for these owls to leave the nest by now, even if they aren’t ready to fly yet. They are as big as the adults, just sort of fluffy, sort of chubby, like a two-year old wearing cloth diapers and plastic pants.

As soon as they learn to fly, they will return to obscurity in the treetops and spend the summer with their parents learning to hunt rodents.

This is the most important time of year to keep all cats indoors–especially if you live out on the prairie with the ground-nesting grassland birds. It’s also important not to mow right now.

Cats, unlike native predators, are more numerous and will kill for fun rather than food.

I hope whoever belongs to the gray cat that visits my yard will keep him home. Otherwise I have to put my dog on guard duty first thing in the morning, and then the green-tailed towhee won’t come.

Two bird watchers from California traveling through Cheyenne made arrangements to meet me down at Lions Park the windy day we had whitecaps on the lake.

Other than the western grebes, mallards, a few yellow-rumped warblers and a tree full of goldfinches, there wasn’t much to see, and we decided not to walk around the lake.

On the way back to our cars I mentioned the only other sure-fire bird observation we could make would be the yellow-headed blackbirds over by the cattails.

“Yellow-headed blackbirds?” responded the Californians. “We’ve seen them only three other places!”

So we headed into the wind and were soon rewarded with a yellow-headed male strolling the path until he was at our feet.

Then he flew up and engaged in aerial shenanigans with a red-winged blackbird a few feet above our heads. The Californians were delighted.

So, one birder’s blackbird is another’s special species. Should I ever look up the Santa Monica Audubon chapter, I wonder what locally abundant bird they have that will be my fabulous find?

12 ways to keep birds safe

Chick in nest

There are many things people can do to keep birds safer. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 30, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “12 practical ways you can help keep birds safe.”

2014 Update: American Bird Conservancy is a good resource: http://www.abcbirds.org/. The current website for Audubon at Home is http://athome.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

All winter our relationship to wild birds is confined to observation and, perhaps, feeding them. But now with migration and breeding seasons intersecting with an increase in human outdoor activity, we need to think about bird safety.

1. Litter – The cigarette stubbed out in the driveway disappears, but probably blew onto the neighbor’s lawn where, if it isn’t picked up, it will, like other loose trash, break down and its unnatural components will pollute soil and water. Before that is able to happen, litter could end up in the digestive system of curious babies, puppies and other animals. And remember all those photos of birds hampered by fishing line and other plastic debris.

2. Windows – If you are dreading the annual cleaning chores, skip your windows and tell people dirty ones are not as dangerous for birds. If you do wash your windows and find that one is particularly prone to getting messed up by birds thumping into it, you need to put some stickers on the outside. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Student Conservation Association and Wyoming Public Radio send me those nice static cling type stickers every year so I can advertise my affiliations at the same time.

3. Cats – Nasty winter weather made it easy to keep your cat indoors. Just continue to keep it in and buy a harness and leash for little excursions or build an outdoor pen with a screened roof. If you put a bird feeder outside a window, your indoor cat will be very happy. Just make sure the window screen is strong enough to withstand your cat’s aborted bird attacks. If you don’t have a cat and are tired of the neighbor’s eating the birds that come to your feeder, borrow a cat trap from the animal shelter or get a dog to scare it off.

4. Feeders – Cold winters are marvelous for keeping bacteria in check around feeders. Don’t quit feeding now in warm weather when migrating birds will make feeder watching even more interesting. But be sure to clean your feeders and feeding areas with a mild bleach solution every few weeks. If you see any lethargic house finches, perhaps with warty growths around their eyes, quit feeding for at least a week so the healthy birds don’t come in and get infected.

5. Water – If you provide a bird bath, make sure it has sloping sides or a sloping rock in the middle so birds can wade in. Brush the scum out every day when you refill it. Think about disinfecting it periodically. If you have tanks for watering livestock, make sure they have bird ramps to avoid drownings.

6. Pesticides – If toxic chemicals are sprayed on your lawn, you can keep small children and pets off for the necessary period of time, but birds can’t read those cute little signs. Plus, pesticides wash into ground and surface water used by people and wildlife. Instead, try non-toxic lawn and garden care. Talk to Catherine Wissner and the Master Gardeners at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension Service, 633-4383, or check out Audubon at Home, www.audubon.org/bird/at_home/IPM_Alternatives.html.

7. Mowing – So you bought the house with five acres of prairie, and a riding mower, and you can’t wait to get out there. Please relax, take a hike or go fishing instead, and let the ground nesting birds, including the meadowlarks everyone enjoys, get the next generation started. Give them till at least mid-July.

8. Dogs – During the crucial season for ground nesting birds, late April to mid-July, keep dogs on a leash so they don’t raid nests.

9. Nest Boxes – A birdhouse that is meant to be safely used by birds will have certain crucial features. The opening will be sized precisely for the intended cavity-nesting species: house wren, mountain bluebird, tree swallow, flicker, etc. There’s no perch sticking out below, where starlings can stand while reaching in to raid the nest. Some kind of latch allows the nest box to be opened for cleaning. The box is the right dimensions, has proper ventilation, is not painted a dark color and is situated at the right height. Check the library for a book with particulars or go to www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/resources.

10. Baby Birds – Short of a catastrophe killing their parents, baby birds seldom need our help. It is best to leave them alone. If you watch long enough, you’ll probably see parents bringing food to the grounded fledgling until it gets up the gumption to fly. You can try setting featherless nestlings back in their nest or in a small bucket with twigs and grass hung somewhere safe near where you found them (but not if they are a ground-nesting species). Trying to feed baby birds yourself is usually not successful and deprives other wildlife species that depend on baby birds for their own food supply.

11. Shrubs and Trees – Cheyenne is in the midst of the grasslands and if we are to promote the welfare of the beleaguered grassland bird species which have lost habitat due to plowing and development, we shouldn’t promote planting trees and shrubs away from creeks and lakes. But up against our homes natural shade and windbreaks conserve energy, shelter migrating birds and attract birds we wouldn’t see otherwise out here on the plains. Choose native fruit and seed producing vegetation.

12. Energy – There is no energy source yet that doesn’t have some negative impact on wildlife. Remember, stuff you buy takes energy to produce so recycle and reuse, of course. And if you reduce the size of the house you need to heat and maintain and reduce the amount of stuff you buy that always seems to take additional energy and maintenance, guess what? You’ll save money and have more time to enjoy life and watch birds!