Thursday, July 23, 2009

Harlequin, the mockingbirds and revenge

It's been a trying year for Harlequin the Backyard Cat.

First it was those stupid, fat squirrels taunting her this spring as they nibbled silver maple seeds, their succulent bodies bouncing on the tiniest of twigs, just out of Harlequin's reach.

Of course, as soon as the seeds were all gone, the squirrels disappeared too, leaving Harlequin to repair her feline dignity - which she did by making war on this year's bumper crop of mice in the unmowed "back forty" of our yard.

Then the trouble with mockingbirds began.
Normally, we have one mockingbird in our back yard. He sits atop the power pole at the bottom corner of our lot and sings his heart out.

But this summer, a mockingbird pair had built a nest somewhere in our back yard, and in classic mockingbird fashion, they set out to harass every living creature within 100 yards of their clutch.

At first, we'd notice Harlequin trotting across the yard with an angry mockingbird in tow, squawking and swooping to within a few feet of her. A wise distance for the bird to keep, as Harlequin is a notorious bird killer, known to smack hummingbirds out of the sky and swallow them in one bite.

Then, the harassment intensified. Harlequin would be sitting on our deck trying to nap - not even thinking of stupid little baby birds at the back of the property - and both mockingbirds would be orbiting her raucously. If perchance we opened the door, she would gratefully slip inside, not even bothering to fake that famous feline indifference.

Finally, it started getting really ugly. Whenever Harlequin wanted to get from her shady spot in the garden to the deck where we keep a bowl full of water for her, she had to sprint - incredibly undignified! - as the mockingbirds dive bombed her like kamikazes, pecking her shoulders all the way. If we didn't open the door for her, I'm certain she would've crashed through it. Anything to get away from these horrible birds!

We had never seen the mighty huntress so utterly cowed. She might as well have been a dog.

Of course, no cat can harbor such humiliation for long.

One day, Harlequin brought something to our doorstep.

A baby mockingbird - barely fledged. Dead.

That'll teach 'em...

And she didn't treat this like any other bird she's ever killed. Normally, Harlequin has a voracious appetite, and after a suitable amount of catlike play with her prey, she always eats what she kills.

But she didn't eat this bird.

Not that day.

Not the next.

Not the day after that.

It finally disappeared from our step one night, but in whose paws, we'll never know. Could've been a raccoon. If Harlequin had had her druthers, I think she'd have stuck that fledgling on a pole and let it mummify there, for all the mockingbirds to see forever.

The silence in our yard was eerie.

After a few days, though, one of the mockingbirds finally came back, behaving as he had before The Nest. And Harlequin resumed hunting mice in the back forty. Life had returned to normal.

Until one day last week.

We'd thrown our windows open one morning, delighted to catch a breeze before the temperature rocketed to 100 degrees that day. I heard Harlequin's classic, "I'm-coming-up-the-hill-to-see-my-humans-I-hope-they-have-some-food" meow - Mowww! Mowww! Mowww!

I looked out the window, happy to see her. But she wasn't there. I was perplexed - I'd heard her distinctly.

It happened again a few days later when I was watering plants in the yard.

Mowww! Mowww! Mowww!

I turned around, and again saw no cat.

Then I looked up at the power pole.

It was the mockingbird.

He was mocking Harlequin.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


SimplyOutdoors said...

What an interesting story, and I'd say that even though the bird ultimately had the last word, that that is still a victory for the cat.

Josh said...

That really is an interesting story, and especially powerful to me, because of the lore of mockingbirds in my family.

It also, sadly, illustrates the problem with roving cats. I had an outside cat for 21 years, and when she died I told myself that I would own no other cats. They are just too catastrophic (pun intended) on bird populations. Later, as a park interpreter, I found out just how devastating they can be, when my park was overrun by at least a dozen cats, and a "cat lady" who fed them and supposedly caught and neutered them (I strongly believe she didn't do it). Also, their poop is the number one cause of sea otter mortality (important where I worked, at Monterey Bay).

I love cats and I'm fascinated by them, but on the conservation level, they are a devastating invasive species.

I in no way mean to denigrate your kitty.f

NorCal Cazadora said...

If we had our druthers, we'd make her our indoor kitty, but that train has left the station. Her sister, Giblet, happily adapted to the indoors, where there were fewer things to scare her, at the age of seven months. Harlequin has been a bold outdoor rover for her whole life, and while she'll come inside and stay a while in the winter, she's utterly preoccupied with the outdoors in the summer and can't be contained.

Both are part of a cat colony our neighbors maintain, at least in part to control rodents in their vast garden. In reality, Harlequin usually eats birds. I've actually been surprised to see her bring in so many mice this year - we must really have a great crop of them.

The good news is she's actually been spayed, which is not the norm in the cat colony. And I'm grateful for it. If presented with a batch of kittens, I'm sure I'd crumble and want to keep them all. I'm just a hair's-breadth away from becoming a crazy cat lady myself...

As for the birds in our neighborhood, they appear to be doing fine despite the cat colony (did I mention THREE batches of kittens this year?). The worst thing that's happened to our birds is West Nile that swept through a few years ago. The magpies have never fully recovered. But the bluejays happily moved into their niche.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

I am left with the question: Were the mockingbirds justified in their actions, knowing a Killer was in Their Midst? Or was Harlequin justifed? Was this a fitting revenge for all that persecution.

Nature's mysteries...

Josh said...

Cazadora, I also completely understand the allure of having an outside cat - like getting to see wild prey, you get to witness an animal being itself completely. And, cats are a blast to watch in their element.

As for the birds, the ones who have adapted well to cats are around, I'm sure, but that isn't an accurate representation of what might be available. The corvids do well, as do the catbirds (ironically, including mockingbirds), but other birds like the orioles & bluebirds won't be seen in the neighborhoods as often.

As for West Nile, ornithologists have not found a magpie survive it. The other corvids, including our scrub jays and crows, have very high mortality rates (50-80%), but the surviving individuals tend to be passing on their resistance to offspring. It's sad about the magpies, because California is the only place on Earth with yellow-billed ones.

Albert A Rasch said...

Cats, Mockingbirds, a match made in Natures heaven. Always entertaining!

I had no idea about the Magpies though... 100% mortality. Always something new to make you wonder and worry. I try to dump everything I see with stagnant water in a quest to limit the number of skeeters, I figure every little bit helps.

Best Regards,
Albert A Rasch
The Outfitters Chronicles: J Scott Croner Part I
Hunting Trophy

NorCal Cazadora said...

I still miss the magpies. It was like having a pod of winged orcas in our back lawn.

Josh, I totally love indoor cats. I don't have to worry about Giblet being poisoned by the other neighbors who resent having a cat colony next door. (Yeah, I've found poisoned dead cats in our yard too.) And I like not having to worry about cars and tomcats, either.

I just know Harlequin would die a thousand deaths inside. It would be like making me stay inside.

Your West Nile stats are consistent with what we saw that summer - crows took a hit, but some survived. Bluejays survived best. But literally not one magpie flew in the neighborhood for at least a year, when neighboring flocks finally started filling in. And they never reclaimed our backyard. That in itself was fascinating to watch. Makes you realize how quickly nature would fill in behind us if we were to disappear.

And HAGC, I have the same question you do. Given Harlequin's track record with fledglings, I'd have to say the mockingbirds were justified. But I don't believe that's why they acted that way - I believe they just become terrorists when they nest.

And Simply, I think you're right. I don't think Harlequin cares that she's being mocked.

Now, of course, the mockingbird taunts me - his latest imitation is the sound of a dove on the wing. Uncanny. Making me itch for Labor Day.

Matt Mullenix said...

Reminds me of a story from my days chasing radio tagged Cooper's hawks in Florida: A male spent several hours one morning flying a mile back and forth to clean out a nest of Kingbirds and bring the babies back to his own brood, one by one.

Another make did the same thing with a nest of blue jays, going back to the candy store for another heist until they were all gone.

Sitting in my den a couple years ago I watched a male Broadwinged hawk perform the same trick, taking one fat baby dove from its nest in my yard, then returning 15 minutes later for its sibling.

Feeding babies to babies.... that's life in the wild for you. :-)

NorCal Cazadora said...

Yep, nobody gets out alive - that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I have two cats that my other half and I rescued this past year. The bird damage in the vegetable garden isn't half of what it was the previous years.
We have also watched the cats and the mockers do things to piss eachother off. I am usually on the cats side of this. At least until I see one of the mockers tearing tail feathers from a crow in flight. They are fearless, crazy little birds. Gotta respect that.
I am happy to have our indoor/outdoor cats. They make the tv unecessary with the entertainment they provide. They also eat a whole lot of bugs. Some, I wish they didn't, but they really do a number on some of the beetles. Yes, I worry about them in the big outside world as they are dear to me, but I want them outside as well as inside.
I like the birds and I have some room for them but many times, they are my adversary in the garden. I am always a little sad at the death when our cat brings in a bird, but it is part of their job here.
Just my two cents,


Ken and Joanne said...

We don't see many outdoor cats here in Tucson. The coyotes eat them. That's probably why we have so many birds.


Deanne said...

I want to know the end of the story... does Harlequin go after another baby bird??

NorCal Cazadora said...

Nope, that was the end. But her attack on Mousetropolis continues - Boyfriend said she got two in one day while I was out of town last week!