Bird-Watching

How to create an outdoor birding paradise for indoor cats

04-01-1999 // Kit and George H. Harrison

Some fellow bird-watchers are horrified to learn that we are cat owners, believing that the two must be mutually exclusive. There´s good reason for such reaction: In the United States, there are 66 million pet cats and between 40 and 60 million unowned, free-roaming cats. While no one can say how many birds and other wildlife are killed each year by these small hunters, the figure is probably in the hundreds of millions. In the state where we live, Wisconsin, free-roaming cats kill an estimated 39 million birds each year alone according to recent research at the University of Wisconsin.

Our cat cannot be counted among the culprits, however. That´s because she has never set a paw outside (except in a carrier for car travel). Like us, though, she has spent years observing birds through the windows of our house. Cats by nature are dedicated bird-watchers. Our cat seems to enjoy staring at the feathered creatures for hours on end and we´ve made her life easier by creating habitat right outside certain windows--something any cat owner can do. The birds also benefit from such added habitat.

Cats that spend their lives indoors can still practice using their hunting and stalking instincts through a pane of glass. And after recognizing that the cat on the other side of the window does not represent a danger, a bird may feel secure enough to build its nest and raise its young within inches of you and your pet.

Dense native shrubs, planted just outside a window that offers a good vantage point, can provide ideal nesting sites and cover for a variety of songbirds. The best plants to use will vary by geographic region, as well as by the size and location of the windows. The addition of a berry-producing plant such as highbush cranberry will not only provide cover but also food for some species of birds during the cold months. You can also put feeders, baths and nest boxes just outside the windows.

Needless to say, some birds are timid about approaching feeders or shrubs close to a window from which a cat is watching their every move. One solution is to install a piece of reflective film, such as mylar, on the inside of the window. Easily removed, the mylar acts like a one-way mirror, allowing you and your cat to see the birds, but not vice-versa. In our experience, the mirror effect does not cause the birds to fly into the glass or attack their reflections, perhaps because feeders and baths may be neutral zones where conflict is minimal.

Another option is to create a "blind" for your cat, using a sturdy box that is big enough for your pet to lounge in comfortably. Set the box on its side, with the open top facing you and the closed bottom facing the window. Then cut two peep holes or slits in the closed bottom, one that would be at your cat´s eye level while sitting, the other at its eye level while lying down.

Keeping your cat safely indoors is one of the things you can do to offer him or her an excellent chance for a longer, healthier life. In the process, you´ll also be ensuring a safer life for the birds that visit your yard.

Kit and George H. Harrison´s latest book is Bird Watching for Cats.

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