6.24.2015

DIY birdbath v. 1.0

birdbath under blue spruce

In case anyone hasn't figured it out yet, I keep this blog for my own learning as much as a way to share ideas with others. It's like free continuing education—but more fun. So after learning more about Portland's Backyard Habitat Program for a recent post, I decided the tiny yard of our rented duplex had room for a birdbath.

We'd already planted a packet of Northwest-adapted wildflower seeds back in March amid the tomato starts in the front yard to support bees and butterflies, so when the flowers began to bloom and the bees and butterflies started arriving, it was time to help the birds. I'm wary of bird feeders since spilled seeds can attract mice and rats (ick) and sprout where they're unwanted. In any case, Portland's relatively mild winters also ensure a steady food supply of berries, nuts, seeds, and certain insects for most native nonmigratory birds, especially when gardeners avoid deadheading seedpods, leaving those natural winter food sources. So until I make a decision about bird feeding, a birdbath is an easy way to wade into bird care.

I'd never thought much about bird bathing before. Neither my parents, grandparents, nor great-grandparents kept birdbaths in their gardens. We lived in the Klamath Basin near the National Wildlife Refuges, some of the most critical migratory bird habitats in the U.S., though my family never went birding. Sometimes on car trips near the California border we'd spot a bald eagle perched on a telephone phone—"Look, an eagle!"—unaware that this experience wasn't common. Summers were full of the calls of the Western Meadowlark singing from the wide sagebrush field next door. And our yard in summer was dotted with fat red robins yanking up worms from our sad, crab-grass patches islanded amid all the ragweed making us sneeze. So maybe because I was surrounded by birds as a child without ever thinking much about them, I've unconsciously tended to think birdbaths were mainly decorative or at most a lazy way for humans to watch birds without having to trudge around in wetlands with binoculars—rather than artificial puddles neighborhood birds in fact need for refreshment, cleansing, and feather maintenance, just as much as humans need bathtubs or showers. (If all we had were puddles, we'd be using those, too.)


cement birdbath top on ground in shadows

So after reading that birds prefer birdbaths on the ground to mimic natural water sources, I mentioned to my housemate wanting to make a birdbath using a large shallow clay plant saucer, which some home birders claim draw the most birds. That same evening, he came home with the top section of a standard fluted concrete birdbath gleaned from a friend. So this is our latest free, simple DIY home-improvement project: a large dish placed on the ground under the dappled shade of a bonsai-ed blue-spruce tree. I washed off a couple large river rocks from the yard and placed them in the bowl as islands. So far, I've only seen birds in there a couple of times, including a trio of black-capped chickadees, though I'm hoping for more sightings.

There may be a DIY birdbath v. 2.0 in the future, though, because the cement bowl is almost too heavy for me to tip for cleaning. I haven't done any bowl scrubbing yet, but the water needs to be refreshed every couple of days to prevent bacterial and algal growth as well as mosquito larvae, so I've been tipping it over and refilling it when watering the wildflowers and tomatoes opposite the birdbath. A smaller, lighter clay dish would be easier to handle.


black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) in birdbath

But what's most critical when attracting birds to a yard is making sure there are no cats around. Most people who love those soft purring hairballers haven't a clue how ferocious cats are. Everyone knows domestic felines (Felis catus) only bother with string as practice for prey like mice, lizards, and snakes. But most people don't know that cats kill estimated billions of birds each year in the U.S. alone and many more billions of small mammals. Whole bird species are going extinct from human-led habitat loss compounded by population decimation by cats—like humans, an invasive species. In other words, Tweety Bird is losing to Sylvester.

Although my roommate has occasionally seen a raccoon family strolling through our yard late at night, we don't normally see any roaming neighborhood cats on this block. My own cat has always been an indoor-only cat—which is the default recommendation in the Bay Area where I was living when I adopted her and the only situation supported by any California veterinarian we visited because cats live healthier and longer lives indoors. Strangely, I've found since moving to Portland that most cats here are indoor-outdoor, and even the vets up here don't seem too bothered by this norm. Part of me has always felt guilty for keeping my cat essentially in a large cage her whole life, but then I feel better about it when I think of all the wild creatures she hasn't killed or maimed in her 11 years and counting.

Yet despite a lifetime of home quarantine, my cat still managed to kill a bird when she was young. (Well, I suspected her foremost since our other cat was older, fatter, and more lethargic, though it could possibly have been a team effort.) My ex and I were living on the third floor of an apartment building with two isolated balconies in the unit. We kept the bedroom balcony open most of the year, so our two cats could wander out for sightseeing and fresh air. Once, I came home from a long day and found our living room strewn with bright yellow feathers. I finally found the corpse of a small yellow bird (somebody's escaped pet canary? wild goldfinch?) on its back, feet up, under a chair skirt. I didn't see any wounds or blood, so the pretty little songbird was probably chased, batted around, and scared to death, its heart stopped . . . after how long a torture? Sick to my stomach and sobbing, I called up my then-husband, who said, annoyed, "What do you want me to do about it, leave work early?" I hung up the phone, grabbed a dustpan and broom, scooped up the poor dead bird, tears running down my face, and dumped it, gently, in the garbage (since we had no private yard for burial). My cats just stared at me.


my tabby watching birds from the dining table

But no one should take all this cat-as-killer data as an excuse to kill or harm cats (see tales of historical European cat torture here), who are only following their instinct. Just in the last month here in Portland, a kitten was shot in the face with a pellet gun, wrapped in garbage bags, and left (alive, but with probable permanent hearing loss) in a dumpster, while another kitten was tossed off the St. Johns Bridge, somehow managing to cling to the underside until spotted by a pedestrian and rescued by firefighters. Sadistic humans who do such things to animals make me want to believe in Hell or karma.

I wouldn't own a cat if I didn't like them (and my own tabby in particular). Humans are, of course, the ones who spread cats around the world in the first place as pet rodent control in grain storage, thanks to the development of agriculture. The bird rights versus cat rights debate is complex, as detailed in this 2007 New York Times article portraying legal battles between bird lovers and cat lovers. Norway rats, for example, are themselves an invasive species, also spread by human trade, that could partially be controlled by cats. The problem is that cats don't discriminate by killing only the populous nonnative invasive species humans might want controlled like Norway rats or starlings but many types of native birds, rodents, amphibians, and reptiles. So animal experts advocate for trap-neuter-release programs for feral cats, placing bells on any outdoor cats, default spaying or neutering of house cats, and keeping domestic cats indoors at all times but especially at night when they most like to hunt.

Funny that what was meant to be a short post about putting a birdbath in the yard turned into a whole lecture about cats as wildlife killers. And yet isn't that the sum of life, one species feeding on another while trying to perpetuate its own? Consider the Eastern mandala of the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail: no life exists without death. Eat and be eaten. Think about all the coyotes who lunch on cats. This is only proof that all life is interwoven, and actions have unintended consequences. If we started killing more coyotes, for example, who occasionally munch on feral cats and house cats, there would go more of our natural rodent control because coyotes primarily eat rodents. And coyote numbers were once controlled by gray wolves who are now in miniscule supply and danger of extinction because they learned to pick off domesticated sheep and cattle, which angers ranchers, who pull out their guns. And round and round it goes.


hanging birdhouse, gleaned

So while conservation scientists figure out what to do—including which species deserve to live and in what quantities—the rest of us can quietly put out a birdbath or two, avoid using pesticides (Hello, old busybody neighbor lady!), keep pet cats indoors, report neighborhood feral or abandoned cats to "no kill" animal shelters like the Oregon Humane Society and any animal abuse (or hoarding) to investigative organizations like Multnomah County Animal Services. (FYI, Clackamas County only supports dogs but offers contact information for local organizations who assist not-dogs, including cats, injured birds, and other wounded or orphaned wild animals.)

I often find my cat perched on the dining table or windowsill, watching neighborhood birds flit and twitter about. But since I've never been much of a birder, I usually don't know what I'm looking at, unless it's a robin, chickadee, or blue jay—something with distinctive coloring or shape. Fortunately, like everything else these days, there's an app for that! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a handy bird identification app called Merlin for those, like me, wondering about the smaller, browner, lesser-known birds they're peeping at. My cat just watches her would-be-prey dipping into the bath and flying away.

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