Category Archives: Wildlife

Halloween Horror–Cats, cats, and more cats!

Calico momma anxious to be fed.

All evidence to the contrary, I have not become the neighborhood “crazy cat lady.” I was horrified to come back from town the other day and see a half dozen cats hanging around my yard. It all started innocently enough. First I must say I have a deep empathy for single moms. Imagine caring for three toddlers while having literally to hunt down every meal.

In previous posts I have written about feeding dry cat food to the Scrub Jays that live around my yard. It started when I observed one momma Jay flying into my kitchen and stealing dry cat food to feed her two squawking fledglings. It is my habit to leave the backdoor open in warm weather to enjoy the cross breeze and it allows my cat, Smoke, to come and go at will.

I decided to facilitate the momma Jay’s efforts and nailed an old tin chicken feeder to the five-foot tall cottonwood stump outside my kitchen window. With a steady food supply, the Scrub Jays not only hung around, they perched on the fence, demanding to be fed. Eventually they broke the bird feeder, but kept coming back so I scattered dried cat food on the ground for them. Not a good idea.

Recently, a scrawny looking calico showed up on my property. I tried to shoo her off but she was persistent. She was sneaking in the house through the open backdoor and licking my cat’s dish clean. Then, a week ago, while taking litter to the trash bin, I spotted a kitten. It immediately ran away. I followed it and spied two more kittens which also scurried off. The kittens explained the persistence of the calico cat and were most likely born under my house. The poor momma cat’s sides were concave in her efforts to feed her small brood. Of course the first thing I did was to put out a dish of food and a bowl of milk.

To my dismay, four more adult feral cats emerged from under my house—an orange tabby, an evil looking almost entirely black calico with a few touches of orange and white, a mostly gray calico with a smidgen of orange, and smallish gray tiger cat that I assumed was a juvenile or young female. I called animal control and was told they don’t pick up healthy animals. The best policy, they said, is to ignore the feral cats and they will probably go away. Too late. Anyway, how does one ignore three little kittens?

That was the first and last time I let the three adult strays have a turn at the feeding dishes. Using a plastic bottle, I sprayed water at them to keep them at bay while the momma and kitties ate. I would make the juvenile wait until they were almost finished before s/he got a taste. My plan was to develop their trust until I could capture the momma, three kittens and the juvenile and take them to a shelter, as they were the most adoptable. Once that was done, I would make other three adult strays very unwelcome with the spray nozzle on the garden hose.

By the end of the week the kittens were climbing up and playing games on that same cottonwood stump. They were just too cute but my own feral cat was not speaking to me, would not even stay in the same room with me.

Smokey is a spoiled feral cat I adopted as a kitten 13 plus years ago primarily to cut down the gopher population that infested my yard. She has been an outstanding hunter but is not a fighter and has been bloodied more than once in altercations with strays. She refuses to go outside while this herd of feral cats is prowling the property.

During the week I have been putting a dish of canned cat food and a bowl of milk into a plastic storage tub that lay on its side on the ground outside my backdoor. Friday morning when the momma, three kittens and small tiger each had all four paws into the storage bin I slapped on the lid and carried them to my truck. I had drilled holes in the top of the bin and all was quiet as we started off down the highway. About three miles down the road, the calico decided she wanted out.

I thought the lid would stay on by itself but the calico popped it and I pulled over and got her shoved back in before she could escape entirely. There was no way I could drive with five cats loose in my cab. I held the lid on with one arm and continued driving but the calico persisted. I turned down a rural road that I knew ended in a cul de sac while acknowledging to myself that these cats would be terrified and traumatized at being housed at a dog pound, that chances of them being adopted were pretty much nil in that they were feral, that the pound charges a hefty fee for adoptions, and that there are plenty of domesticated cats available for no fees whatsoever.

So, I confess, I dumped the momma calico, the three kittens and the tiger cat by a bank of mailboxes at the end of the country road. I knew the momma was a hunter because I had seen her eating a mouse even while I was feeding her morning and evening. I hope someone adopts them, maybe as a Halloween treat for a child. Yes, I feel guilty, but Smokey is obviously pleased. And I have a bit more empathy for people who dump cats out in the country, but I am not feeding any more strays. There would simply be no end to it. I am putting a big board across the access hole to stop critters from getting under my house.

Happy Halloween.


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Let Them Eat Cat Food


Scrub-Jays Forego Blackberries

Wild blackberries among the roses.

Last year I wrote a blog about a Brazen Blue Jay that was flying into my kitchen and stealing Smoke’s cat food. I assumed she was taking the wet food thinking it would be more worm-like, but no, she was stealing the dry food. On closer observation I saw that she had two fledglings as big as she, but not yet ready to procure their own food and the mother was cleverly finding a short cut to feeding her boisterous little brood. So the juveniles were weaned (so to speak) on dry cat food.

It turns out she is actually a western scrub-jay, a long-tailed jay with a small bill and no crest. Official “blue jays” have a crest. According to National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America, my scrub-jays are of the subspecies called the “interior woodhouseii group.” Unlike their coastal cousins which are “confiding, tame and easily seen” these woodhouseii of southeastern California are “more secretive and often are seen darting from bush to bush or are simply heard giving their harsh calls.”

This spring I attached a chicken feeder to the top of a cottonwood stump outside my kitchen window and put dry cat food in it to save the mom the trouble of ducking into my kitchen. Now I have six scrub-jays taking turns at the dry cat food I put out every morning. I assume that includes last year’s brood plus the two new chicks this year and the parents. Apparently I am growing my own flock of scrub jays. But the “secretive” and “darting” six rascals are virtually impossible to capture in one photo.

I was pleased to find that this year the jays stopped eating the wild blackberries that grow among my climbing roses. Every other day during blackberry season I have been able to pick off a handful of berries to eat on cereal or yogurt. A sweet tradeoff given the entertainment value of watching the six scrub jays vying for dry cat food outside my kitchen window.

Scrub-jay at feeder and on fence.

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For the Birds

Winter’s comin’ on. It got down to 36 degrees last night. Made the first fire of the winter in my wood-burning stove this morning. This old house doesn’t have any insulation to speak of—only in my pine paneled bedroom—and no central heating. But I’m toasty warm at my computer.

Yesterday I got a shipment via FedEx from a mega pet store, all for the birds. Included were two state-of-the-art humming-bird feeders, two gallons of pre-mixed humming-bird food, 40 pounds of wild birdseed, seven pounds of songbird food and two bird feeders; one for thistles and one for songbird seeds.

Didn’t see any humming birds at the one feeder I hung today. It’s right outside the front window. I know it’s not too close to the house because humming birds have hovered around my door numbers that are painted on colorful Mexican tiles. They’ll find it soon enough.

Goldfinches were regular visitors to my wildflowers this past spring and summer. I’m hoping to keep them around this winter. Didn’t see any finches today. What I did was piss off my brazen blue jay. She is too big to attach herself to the songbird feeder, so would fly at it and kick it to shake the tasty seeds out of the tray and onto the ground where she could get at them. I don’t know how to resolve this problem. There is a bird feeder to which she has easy access, but it does not contain the pricey songbird seed, just the basic stuff, the kibble of bird food to her apparently.

The sparrows and quail aren’t fussy. The quail are skittery, running to and fro. But they do watch me when I toss a hand full of birdseed over the fence. Then they skitter this way and that as they move closer. Pretty soon I will have them over the fence and in the yard.

I hope to post some bird photos soon, and perhaps a quail video. Yeah, this blog is for the birds. Feeding any feathered friends this winter?

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Skunk ahoy!

The baby skunk, wet and cold, climbs out of the pond.

 The sun had not yet come up over the foothills when I headed out for some early morning yard work. Surveying my progress on a retaining wall around the water feature (sunken old porcelain bathtub, a.k.a. the pond) in a corner of my yard I saw this young skunk, half in the water, clinging with its sharp little claws with what appeared to be its last bit of its strength to the only rock in the water. The dome of the rock, an angular piece of granite, was few inches above the waterline.

 Well, you don’t just rush in and grab a wild skunk, not even a little one. I stuck a broad board into the pond and the little guy managed to climb up on it. Trembling, he slowly made his way up the board which was six or eight inches above the ground at the high-end. It obviously looked like a big drop because he looked over one side and then the other. Again I had to quell the urge to rush in and make it easier for him.

 Finally he dropped off on the side of a tall patch of slender mauve wildflowers. He wobbled and shook like a bottle in an earthquake, before collapsing into a ball. Hypothermia? There was nothing I could or was willing to do, such as dry him off with a warm towel. But I could see he was breathing. There went my plans for an early start at mowing the lawn. I didn’t want to disturb him.

Before much longer, the sun rose over the hills and shone on his black fur. It would soon absorb the sun’s warmth and bring his body temperature up as quickly as anything I could think of. I went to the Internet to get information on the stripped skunk. “Striped skunks mate from mid-February to mid-March. The babies are born about two months later. An average skunk litter has five to six babies. Skunk babies are blind and deaf when they are born. They will nurse in the den for about a month and a half.” I assume he was from a new litter (a skunk litter is called a surfeit—interesting word choice) that was beginning to learn their way around.

 Skunks are omnivorous. Maybe he was going after the pollywogs in the pond. I am trying to raise a crop of frogs to dine on flies and mosquitoes that also like to hang around the pond. Actually I’m not doing anything but not cleaning out their habitat until they grow legs. Hopefully skunks eat slugs and snails which I have also spotted around the pond. In the 12 years I have lived here, this is the first year I have seen any snails or slugs and I do not want their slimy company.

About an hour and a half later, a guy across the highway and down a bit started using a weed wacker which roused the little guy (a baby skunk is called a kit). I had been in and out of the house, checking on him every time I came outside. This time I looked and he was gone. I moved closer and saw the kit waddle up to the chain-link gate to the backyard. Skunks definitely waddle. To my surprise he climbed right through one of the links and disappeared down a hole by the foundation—to join his brothers and sisters, perhaps to share the exciting story of his near-death experience. Apparently I now have a surfeit of skunks living under my house…phew.

Editor’s note: I first posted this story on June 5, 2010. A few days later I watched the momma skunk walk under my fence with one of her babies on her back–apparently headed for new, safer digs. 

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Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien

Bird by Bird
Most mornings I get up a little before the sun to hear the song birds, few of which I can name, chirping and beginning to sing at the approaching dawn. An owl I have never seen, still slowly hoot hoots before calling it a night.

Quail live around my fenced-in property and are most often seen in the early evening, skittering about and pecking for food. In the winter when I have bird feeders out they will fly over the fence into the yard and eat seed that has fallen to the ground.  A famous local nature artist, Steven Ball, gave me one of his signed quail prints. He painted a quail mural on the Bank of America in a nearby community. I did a story on the mural and an interview on Mr. Ball. Promoting the cute little critters seems a better choice than hunting them.

I often hear and see Canadian geese flying south through the valley in the springtime, generally in pairs, seldom in the bigger V-formation. In the fall they will come back through from the other direction. Right now the turkey vultures (also migratory) are doing a lay-over in this neighborhood en route from Canada to South America. Wild turkeys abound, like the Pilgrims ate. One neighbor has a whole flock on his property where they live quite safely, and did not mind being photographed for a Thanksgiving cover on my former newspaper. A common raptor in the Sierra foothills is the red-tailed hawk.  

I did a report on pheasant hunting (non-judgmental) by children at a local pheasant farm in existence for that purpose. Beautiful white egrets stand like statues among the cattails. I sometimes see one flying up the river which I can hear but cannot see from my property. I also have a cheeky blue jay that occasionally flies into my kitchen to steal the cat’s food, the closest I have come to a friendship with a wild bird. She is raising her two chicks mostly in the environs of my yard. Such is life in the backcountry.

But for an amazingly up-close and personal relationship with a bird, biologist Stacey O’Brien has written about her 19-years with WESLEY THE OWL: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. The young barn owl came into her care because he had a nerve-damaged wing and could not survive in the wild. Barn owls will only eat mice, three a day. In Wesley’s lifespan that came to more than 20,000 mice, all killed and delivered personally by his keeper. So deep was Wesley’s devotion that he was gravely concerned that Stacey ate such oddities as spaghetti and took the extreme measure of dropping a dead mouse into her mouth while she was sleeping, for her to have proper nourishment.

Owls do not get in water because they can become waterlogged and develop hypothermia. Taking cues from is “mom” Wesley would dunk his head under running water to “wash up” and even try, sometimes successfully, to share the shower with her. He offered a running commentary on Stacey’s activities and could understand much of her conversation with him. The most poignantly touching scene for this reader was Wesley lying on Stacey’s chest and giving her an owl hug with his outstretched wings.

WESLEY THE OWL is an obvious choice for backcountry readers and anyone who can imagine what it would be like to talk (and listen) to the animals.

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Filed under Around this old house, Memoir musings, Wildlife

Brazen Blue Jay

That cheeky blue jay has been flying into my kitchen to eat the cat’s food. I caught him at it yesterday. He coolly flew right back out the open kitchen door. Then today, I went into the kitchen after doing some yard work and found bird poop on the counter. I realized it’s open season on the whole kitchen. He can just as easily help himself to the fruit in the bowl on the counter as the cat food in a dish on the floor. I know I said he had no fear of me, that we were friends when I am out in the yard, but I think we need to have a chat on boundaries. Meanwhile my lazy feral cat spent the whole ENTIRE DAY flat on her back on my bed. Was she sleeping or was it SHAME? The queen of gopher gulch is letting this brazen popinjay steal her food! Where’s the pride?

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