A hunter at heart


It’s hard to believe such a cute creature can harbour such a killer instinct. (The cat, not the teddy bear.) Both dogs and cats are naturally predatory animals, but domesticated cats retain much more of that instinct than most dogs do. If you’ve ever seen a cat perk up its ears at the sound of a fly buzzing in a window pane or jump up from where it’s curled up on the couch upon spotting a moth fluttering at a lamp, you’ll know what I mean. That hunting instinct is always present, even in the fattest, laziest of cats. Never take a cat for granted. If it doesn’t chase that fly, it’s not because it’s not a hunter, but rather that it simply chooses not to expend the energy at that moment (a cat’s urge to sleep is about on par with its urge to hunt).


I am a firm believer of an indoor-cat philosophy. Keep cats indoors. The outdoors is a dangerous place for cats. There is the risk of being hit by cars, or being caught by a predator bigger than it (coyotes and fishers are particularly fond of cat). There is the risk of it getting into fights, with racoons or wild animals, or other neighbourhood cats, and developing infection or suffering more serious injuries. The cat is also dangerous to the outdoors. If it’s smaller than the cat, it’s a target. Chipmunks, mice, birds, all favourites. Even a well-fed cat cannot resist the allure of a scurrying mouse.

Oliver looooves the outdoors. It’s fascinating, so many places to roam, so many things to see. He’d taken to scooting out through our feet as we came in the door, and had even learned how to open the door itself (it was one of those sorts without a latch), as he’s doing in the photo above. Finally, we gave in, and decided he would be okay on supervised walks where we were always outside with him.


He quickly asserted himself as a hunter. He would chase the crickets and meadowhawks in the lawn, with a fairly good success rate. Since meadowhawks are a dime a dozen around here, and the cat was just being a cat, we let him tackle those. When he startled up a snake and then pounced on its tail end (I was surprised it didn’t turn around and bite him), I took him inside. But aside from the meadowhawks, the arrangement seemed to be working fine.


Then yesterday Ollie disappeared on us while I was distracted setting up my moth sheet at one side of the lawn. Into the garden? The long grass beyond? I wasn’t sure. He hadn’t been far away while I was working, but then when I turned around next he was gone. I searched for him initially, but couldn’t find him. I needed to get started on dinner, so sent Dan out to resume the search. He found Ollie – perched on this guy, a Chipping Sparrow that Dan at first thought was dead. It wasn’t, although the poor thing didn’t make it, bruised and probably scared to death.


That’s it for Ollie. No more outdoors, supervised or otherwise. We’d let our guard down, lulled into thinking (consciously or not) that his focus was on the meadowhawks and he’d be no problem. I feel terrible for the little sparrow. It’s so easy to forget that every cat is a hunter at heart.

Last fall I wrote a post on keeping cats indoors. I strongly encourage cat owners to keep your cat indoors, no matter how pitifully he looks at you with those big, round eyes. It’s for his own good as much as it is the birds outside that you keep him indoors. If you just can’t resist, buy him a harness and tie-out lead to keep him away from problem areas where small animals or birds might frequent (eg., gardens, bird baths) and to keep him from wandering off. We learned our lesson the hard way.

Audubon Magazine recently did an excellent article on the problem of cats outdoors, brought to my attention by Clare of The House and other Arctic musings. It’s definitely worth a read.


Monday Miscellany

Country road in spring

It’s amazing just how fast the trees leaf out once they start. Just two weeks ago I was noting the late afternoon sun glowing through the sprinkling of leaves on the saplings across the road from the house. Now, I can barely make out the neighbour’s house, which was so apparent in winter. By June, I won’t be able to see it at all. All manner of plant life has greened up or is hard at work at it. Some shrubs are completely leafed out, while the tall ash trees are only just starting. Like the creeks that start tumbling over their rocky beds at spring melt, once spring arrived, time seems to have picked up speed and is rushing by.

Blue Jay

We’ve had a fair bit of rain over the course of the last week. It seems to have gotten all the wet out of its system now, however, and we’re forecasted to have mostly clear skies the rest of the week (whether it remains that way remains to be seen). Although all that rain was undoubtedly part of the reason behind the green explosion, the animals were less than happy about it. This Blue Jay, for instance, was looking a bit bedraggled as it visited the feeders one afternoon.

Mink Frog

The rain has made the ground near our dock rather soggy. As Dan was flipping his boat over one day last week to try to locate a leak that had gotten worse over the winter, he disturbed this guy from the pool of water around the boat. I spent a lot of time debating the identity of this guy. The bright green upper lip and speckled underbelly should make it easy to ID, I figured. I think that it’s a Mink Frog, Rana septentrionalis, but it could also be a Green Frog, Rana clamitans. I couldn’t figure out a definitive ID characteristic that would rule one out based on the photos I have. A Mink Frog would be a “lifer” for me, a species that I’d never encountered previously. In Ontario they tend to be found further north than the GTA where I grew up, but we’d be at the southern edge of their range, here. They’ve been recorded over in the Park. I’m leaning toward Mink because of the small eardrums, dorsal ridges that terminate halfway down the back, and lack of strong barring on the back legs, but I get the impression these are all somewhat variable features.

Water bug, Belostoma sp.

Before Dan flipped over his boat, he bailed out some of the water. And sitting in the water was this guy. I believe it’s a water bug in the genus Belostoma. It was rather large, about an inch long, and quite active within the container Dan had scooped it into. This group of water bugs are among those where the female lays her eggs on the male’s back in the spring. He “broods” the eggs, keeping them clean of fungus, protecting them from predators, and making sure they’re well oxygenated (by doing “push-ups” at the surface of the water). I’m not sure if the lack of eggs on this one means it’s a female, or just a male that hasn’t been laid on yet. I did notice, however, in examining the photos on my computer, that it’s sporting a bunch of red mites.

Bolitotherus cornutus

I found this strange beetle clinging to a piece of driftwood beside my moth trap one morning. I wasn’t sure if it was alive, as it fell off the wood when I touched it, and sat with its legs curled under it. I set it on a shelf in a vial for a couple of hours as I sorted through my trap and photographed the moths I’d caught. When I returned to it, it was sitting in a different spot in the vial, and its legs appeared to be out. As soon as I picked up the vial again, however, it fell over and its legs curled underneath it again.

I pulled out my trusty Kaufman Guide to Insects (I love that book, have I mentioned that?), and there it was at the bottom of page 193: Bolitotherus cornutus. Looking it up on BugGuide.net reveals its common name to be Forked Fungus Beetle, or sometimes Horned Darkling Beetle. The two horns are projections from its thorax, and are used in “battle” with other males to win females (I’m not sure the purpose of the orange “hairs”). They are associated with bracket fungi of hardwoods such as maple and beech. The Kaufman guide makes a note that they are adept at “playing dead”, so I guess that’s what my beetle was doing whenever I disturbed it. Was pretty convincing!

Unidentified bracket fungus

While out with Raven today I encountered this bracket fungus projecting from the side of a stump. Just recently I had read over at Huckleberry Days about Dryad’s Saddle, Polyporus squamosus, a stalked bracket fungus that appears about now, so I thought, “Aha! A Dryad’s Saddle!”. I took a documenting photo and returned home. I pulled out my mushroom guide just to confirm and look up a couple of life history details about the species, and now I’m not convinced that it’s Dryad’s Saddle after all. All the photos I can find on the web for the species show it being concave where it attaches to the stalk, rather than convex like my fungus. I searched through the guide a couple of times and poked about the ‘net, but couldn’t come up with an identity.

Bee fly

Very close to the same spot, I stood and watched this bee fly hovering at several Spring Beauties at the side of the road. It was much oranger than previous individuals I’ve seen, and I wondered if it was just a dark Bombylius major, the species I’ve seen before, or a different species. I gather the half-light/half-dark wing markings are fairly distinctive, and seem to only be shared by B. major and B. mexicanus. It’s hard to make out the specific pattern of dark, but I’m leaning toward B. major.

Crab spider?

I have no idea what this spider is. Not being insects, they’re not usually treated in much depth in the usual insect guides, although Stephen Marshall’s Insects doesn’t do too badly. It looks like it might be a type of crab spider, but I’m not sure. I’d knocked it off the branch of a tree onto a white sheet when I was out looking for beetles (as per a post by Ted of Beetles in the Bush that suggested if you go around thwacking some branches in the spring, it’s possible to discover some beetles you might not normally encounter). I’ve only gone out the once and thwacked half a dozen branches before I was disrupted by the arrival of a real estate agent who was coming to take photos of the house, and then it rained much of last week. Now that the weather is nice again I plan to give it another try.


A few animals from a little closer to home… with the nicer spring weather the cats have been allowed to go outside in their harnesses to sit in the long grass, enjoy the sunshine, and watch the birds. They’re tied to the deck with short 10-foot leads, so they’re not really a threat to anything except perhaps the odd bug. Both for the safety of wildlife and the cats themselves, I never let my cats roam about outdoors, so this is about as outdoor-cat as these guys will get. They enjoy it, though. Despite the chipmunk who thumbs its nose at them by foraging on fallen seeds under the birdfeeder five feet away.

Fish eats cat, fish spits up cat

Fish eats cat. Fish spits up cat.

Water dog

Since late winter, when the snow was just starting to melt, Raven has been taking an increased interest in water. At the first start of ice breakup, she’d paddle her feet in the shallows of the lake, but it’s taken her a while of gradually working up to letting her feet leave the security of the ground. Even when she started doing that, she’d only push forward half a body length, and then quickly turn around to paddle back. After once or twice of that, she wouldn’t go after sticks that were further out anymore, she’d just look at you and whine. We’d taken her out in the boat a couple times and “thrown” her overboard, and she’d paddle back to shore just fine, but was reluctant to go in of her own accord.

Then, a couple days ago, it was like she had an epiphany. We’d thrown a couple of sticks for her just out of reach from where her feet could touch bottom, and she’d pushed off to grab them, but turn quickly back around. She showed a bit of willingness to go a bit further, and so we got her to do two body lengths, and then three. Then Dan suggested throwing the stick way out and seeing if she’d go for it. So I tossed it four or five meters out, and she struck right out to retrieve it.

Water dog

Within the course of five minutes, she was suddenly paddling all over the place like a bonafide water dog. Not only that, but once she realized she wasn’t going to drown if her feet left the bottom, she discovered that hey – I actually like this! Now when we take her down to throw sticks for her, she’ll jump right in the water and start paddling out before you’ve even tossed the stick out. Quite a change from the puppy who was reluctant to even get her feet wet last fall!

A happy bird is an indoor cat


Continuing the cat theme from yesterday’s post, I wanted to touch on the subject of cats outdoors. Anyone who knows me knows I’m more of a Cat Person than a Dog Person. I grew up with a couple of dogs, till I was in my teens, but there have always been cats in the family. When I had the opportunity to take a cat in university, I did, and I was sad to have to find another home for her when I graduated (one that I thought would be temporary, but my situation ended up not sorting itself out as quickly as I had initially envisioned, so it ended up being a permanent home). Now that I’m (finally!) settled in what will hopefully be something of a more long-term residence, I have two cats again, plus a dog. I’ve missed having pets in my life, and it’s nice to have these three enlivening the house.


The sentiment is shared by millions of other people, too, and pet ownership is at an all-time high, with 63% of US households (some 69 million households!) owning at least one pet as of 2006. Between these 69 million households, there’s some 73 million dogs and 90 million cats. These numbers suggest cats to be more popular than dogs, but cats are undoubtedly more numerous than dogs because they’re easier to keep in apartments or small residences, plus they’re smaller and require less direct care (such as taking for walks), so it’s easier to own more than one per house. Interestingly, a 2002 survey suggests that 40% of US households own a dog, while only 30% own a cat. Of dog owners, about 37% own more than one dog, while the remaining 63% just have a single one (count our house among that faction). Meanwhile, 51% of homes have two or more cats, and 49% have just one. Of the five cat-owning homes I know (my various family members and my best friend), four have multiple cats, and it’s just my friend with a single individual.


That’s just the owned animals. In the US, there is an additional segment of the cat population who are considered feral animals, not owned or cared for by any particular individual. All told, there are well over 100 million cats in the country. Estimates figure that anywhere from 25% to 65% of owned cats are allowed to roam about outdoors. Combined with the feral population, that could mean as many as 70 million cats prowling the alleyways and hedgerows, with a heavier proportion in country settings than urban ones.


Cats are natural-born predators. It’s in a cat’s instincts to chase potential prey, which is why they’re so entertained by chasing a few feathers tied to a string, they just can’t help themselves. It doesn’t matter how well they’re fed, or how recently they’ve eaten, a cat faced with an easy target is likely to try to get it. As with all domesticated animals, they’re still wild animals at heart, and their wild ancestors would have to be opportunistic and take advantage of potential food situations whenever they arose, regardless of whether they were hungry – who knew when the next meal would walk by. Because of this, cats make great mousers for the house (many of them, anyway; I’ve known some who were probably just as afraid of the mouse as the mouse was of them).


They also are excellent hunters of birds. An especially prolific hunter may kill up to 1000 animals in a year, with birds making up 20% of the catch. Typically numbers are smaller for the average cat, with urban cats taking less than rural cats, but virtually all cats will end up killing wildlife. Multiply these numbers out across the continent, and free-ranging cats take more than a billion wild animals every year, including millions of songbirds. In some areas, this heavy predation pressure has had a noticeable and negative impact on bird populations. One of the most infamous examples is that of the Stephens Island Wren, a flightless species endemic to Stephens Island, New Zealand. The species was most probably wiped out by an escaped, pregnant cat and her subsequent offspring, which eventually numbered hundreds of individuals just five years later. They were finally eradicated from the island a couple decades later, but it was too late for the wren by then.


In North America there aren’t any endemic flightless species at risk of being exterminated by cats, but cats are taking a toll on bird species in general. Along with window, tower and vehicle collisions, cats are one of the primary direct causes contributing to the decline in songbird numbers. Indirect causes, such as habitat loss, pesticides, etc, make life even harder for these birds. Really, it’s no great surprise that populations are declining, and in fact it’s rather amazing we still have as many birds as we do, with all the trials they go through. It’s hard for us as individuals to do much about large-scale issues such as habitat loss, but controlling cat predation is an easy one – just keep your cat indoors.


Declawed cats, or cats outfitted with bells, are also not going to have any less of an impact on the bird population. A cat doesn’t use its claws to kill birds, although they can help; it just needs to bat the bird down and stun it or pin it, whereupon it uses its teeth to dispatch it. Also, a cat, when it’s stalking prey, moves so fluidly that it can keep a bell from making hardly any noise at all. When I was younger, before my parents began keeping all their cats indoors, I remember one of them, who bore a bell on his collar, having discovered that he could sneak around behind a flock of birds foraging at the seed on the driveway and startle them so that they’d fly toward the windows on the house. If he was lucky one would smack into the window and he’d have an easy catch. The bell on his collar was useless.


Dogs aren’t off the hook, either. A dog that is allowed to run free in natural environments at best disturbs the local wildlife (who view the wolf-like shape as a predator) and at worst may predate an animal or bird itself. There are some species of dogs who are bred to be hunters or retrievers and who will chase small animals, certainly not to the benefit of the animal itself. Recent research has shown that even just walking a dog in an area will have a negative effect on bird abundance and diversity there, compared to an area where no dogs are present. It’s best to keep your dog on a leash, or take them to designated off-leash areas (or your backyard) for play if you can, particularly during the breeding season.


Dogs are large, energetic animals that just can’t get enough exercise within the household, and so need to be taken outdoors for walks or other exercise. Cats, on the other hand, are relatively sedentary animals that can usually get sufficient exercise just through their normal routine and play indoors. An indoor cat is not necessarily an unhappy cat. Provided with ample play opportunity, and a cozy seat by the window, a cat can be perfectly content. If you really want to be able to let your cat outdoors, train it to go out on a harness and leash, or tether the leash to a stake in the yard where you can keep an eye on it.


Besides all the benefits to wildlife, keeping your cat indoors will benefit them, too. A free-roaming cat has an average lifespan of less than 5 years. My parents, when I was growing up, had a series of several outdoor cats, and most lasted about two years before disappearing altogether, presumably either hit by a car or taken by a coyote, the two largest threats to free-roaming cats. An indoor cat, on the other hand, can live up to 15-20 years; virtually all the indoor cats I’ve known have lived this long. The Guinness record for oldest cat is 31 years. I can guarantee no outdoor cat will live that long. (The record for a dog is 29 years.)


The American Bird Conservancy has an active campaign called Cats Indoors! that promotes the benefits of keeping your cat inside. You can read more on the issue at their website.

My cats will always be indoor cats, for their health, my happiness, and the wild birds’ lives.

An infusion of cute

Four kittens and a girl

It seems that so far I’ve posted about a wide variety of different things – unusual, bizarre, interesting, cool, current, pretty, colourful, diverse… but nothing that I would necessarily classify as cute. This post is to rectify that oversight.

This weekend my middlest sister was at my parents’ for a few days. She’ll be moving to Ottawa this coming weekend, and I wanted to visit with her before she takes off for the far reaches of the province (actually, it could be worse, she could be moving to Thunder Bay). Also, I wanted to visit with the cute bundles of fur currently in her care.


This is Momcat. She’s a stray who has adopted my parents. She’s been living there for about five years now. She first arrived in the area, we think, by means of some thoughtful person who dumped her and her young litter in a box at the side of the road not far from my parents’ place. There seems to be some underground network among the animal community directing the lost, the sick, and the homeless to my parents’ – good people live here. Momcat isn’t the first stray to arrive at their doorstep, and she’s unlikely to be the last, although with my parents’ moving this summer they’ll have to establish a new network.

My mom rescued a couple of Momcat’s kittens from that first litter, but Momcat herself has remained elusive. I’ve never known a more wary, nor a more wiley, stray. Most strays that arrive remain stout outdoors cats (my parents keep their own cats indoors all the time, but strays are allowed to come and go – that’s the life they know, and they’d be unhappy trapped indoors), but they pay for their lifestyle choice – most disappear after about two years, probably to cars or coyotes. The fact that Momcat has resolutely remained outdoors, and is still around five years later attests to her wileyness.

Momcat has had a litter of kittens every year since she arrived. So far she’s evaded all attempts to catch her to have her spayed, unfortunately. Over the years she’s become more comfortable around us, though she knows precisely how long our arms are and stays just out of reach. This summer I’ve spent some time trying to tame her down and win her trust enough to be able to bring her in for that (sadly, just to break that trust again, but it’s for the best). There’s hope yet.

Kittens in the loft

This spring Momcat chose to have her litter in the hayloft of the barn. The hayloft hasn’t been used in a long time, it just being too cumbersome to get the hay up there, and then bring it down again. Now the hay’s stored in a shed that sides the barn. The hayloft, however, retains a nice bed of old, loose hay and straw, and is cozy, protected from the elements and predators. Since no one’s ever up there, it’s a nice quiet place for a family.


In the past, when Momcat has started bringing her kittens around to the house for food (she gets fed regular meals like the indoor cats get, but with the hopes that it will not only sustain her, but perhaps cut down on the amount of hunting she does on her own time), an attempt would be made to catch as many of the kittens (who’re slower and less wiley than their mother) as possible and distribute them to indoor homes. My parents have kept a few of Momcat’s babies, but most now live with many different friends of my sisters.

This year, because we knew the location of her kittens before she moved them, and because the location was a contained space, we were able to go in just when they reached the age of starting to feed themselves and catch them all. It was a bit of a kitten-wrangling session, not helped by the fact that the hayloft isn’t large enough for adults to stand up in so my sister and I were trying to scurry as we chased the poor frightened creatures from one end to the other. But in the end we did get them all, and brought them in to a cage we had set up.

Nap time

They’ve adjusted well in the couple weeks since they’ve been in, and while Momcat still seems a bit lonely from time to time, the kittens are having a grand ol’ time with each other, and have become very friendly with people. They all have new homes lined up that they’ll be going to in the next little while. Hopefully we’ll be able to catch Momcat this summer, because we’re just about out of cat-less friends to take the kittens!

While my sister’s been visiting this weekend, the kittens have been kept on the screened-in porch where they can be separate from the other cats but still have lots of room to run around and play and make a mess (with flowerpots and the like, of course – one of the great things about kittens is that they come litter-trained). Below are some photos of the furry balls of cute.











Kittens playing

Fun with toys

Fun with bags

Fun with bags (carefully supervised, of course, but nothing crinkles as intriguingly as a plastic bag)

Fun with knives

Fun with knives (following dinner; fortunately a very dull butter-knife)

Fun with toes

Fun with toes

Fun with kittens

Fun with kittens