Sitting on my front porch a while back, I was watching two bald eagles perched on a cypress limb overlooking the bayou while hummingbirds swooped and buzzed around my ears — an everyday event around here in summer. Struck by simultaneous sightings of the largest and smallest birds in North America, I wondered if I was in danger of becoming a Bird Nut.
I began compiling a list of bird species commonly seen around our farm: barn swallows, scissor-tail flycatchers, bluebirds, Canada geese, mockingbirds, several species of duck, goldfinches, kingbirds, meadowlarks, bobwhite quail, red-bellied woodpeckers, killdeer, cattle egrets, great blue herons, finches, cardinals, robins, and several kinds of sparrow. Two summers ago, a roadrunner set up housekeeping in our barn. Pelicans and snow geese fly overhead in winter.
Anyway, I quit counting at 40 species. I’m confident that friends who are certifiable Bird Nuts could do better.
And then there’s Albert, aka “The Orange Dog.” Albert is a three-year-old tabby tomcat with a quirky personality unlike any cat I’ve ever known. Our neighbors rescued his pregnant mother from a Walmart parking lot; Albert grew up on their front porch, along with two dogs and a flock of free-range chickens.
We brought him home at 12 weeks, roughly the size of my fist. Confronted by Maggie, our intimidating Great Pyrenees/Anatolian mix, Albert immediately pounced on her head. Fortunately, she loved it. Although the kitten objected loudly to being carried around in Maggie’s mouth, the two became fast friends.
Leery of anything with a motor, Albert appears to fear no living thing. He spends large parts of his day with the big dogs, who treat him as a pack member. When I go outside, he follows me everywhere, especially to the barn. It’s quite a parade: three guard dogs, one honorary Orange Dog, and me. He’s been known to sit on cedar fence posts purring while Mt. Nebo, the Tennessee walking horse, nibbles his fur.
Partly because I’ve never fed Albert anywhere except inside the house, he nearly always comes running when I call, and stands up on his hind legs for petting. Basically, that cat thinks I hung the moon.
Anyway, if you’ve been reading the socially responsible newspapers, maybe you can guess where this is going. Because during the remainder of his waking hours, it must be reported, lovable, oddball Albert spends his time trying to kill things.
He’s gotten awfully good at it, too. As there aren’t enough surviving mice in the barn to keep him busy, the cat has taken to ranging farther afield — stalking fencerows and lurking among the branches of a fallen tree. He chases sparrows full-tilt along barn rafters 15 feet off the ground. Yesterday I watched him slipping among sleeping cows, trying to ambush ground-feeding birds. He tried the same stunt in the chicken pen until the rooster ran him off.
To an increasing number of public scolds, this makes Albert Public Enemy Number One. “That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think,” headlined the New York Times recently. According to a study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service, cats “kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year.”
All this carnage supposedly makes “the domestic cat ... one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation.”
This brings out the lifestyle commissars in full force. “If you are not willing to keep your cat indoors or leash it when it goes outdoors,” comments one indignant fellow, “then you should be subject to massive and escalating fines.”
Bulldoze whole counties; build eight-lane expressways every which way; erect glass-sided buildings and wind turbines everywhere; and then blame housecats for declining songbird populations? Give me a break.
Indeed, it turns out that most of the damage is done by colonies of feral cats -- which everybody agrees need to be controlled, although hardly anybody agrees about how.
Reading further, we learn that indoor/outdoor cats like Albert are responsible for only a fraction of this “slaughter” -- 11 percent of the mammals, for example, are mostly grain-spoiling, disease-carrying rodents which definitely need killing.
What’s the expected life span of a house sparrow anyway? Because here’s the thing: What I left off my bird list are the predators. Not just bald eagles, which mostly kill fish and turtles, but barred owls, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks. All of which hunt pretty much the same species Albert does. There’s a noisy war among hawks, crows and owls that goes on full-time out in the boondocks. They kill each other’s young.
That’s not to mention several species of snakes, bobcats and coyotes. When the big dogs get put up at night, Albert’s brought inside for his own protection. Because it wouldn’t do to have him try to jump on a hungry coyote’s head.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.