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Chickadee Mating Politics

>> Sunday, April 25, 2010

Last week I had mentioned that chickadees had moved into our nest box.  I dearly love the whole chickadees nesting in my yard thing.  Each day I would go out there and peep into the box, looking for mama chickadee sitting on her nest.

Then, on Wednesday, disaster struck.

My cat ate my chickadee.

I have mentioned before that our evil little stinker of a cat Tucker tormented us for years before we ultimately started letting him go outside.  I happen to feel strongly that cats should be kept indoors precisely because they are killers by instinct, and take an unwonted toll on songbird populations when they are allowed outdoors.  In addition, being an outdoor cat significantly shortens a cat's life span, and it's healthiest for them to be kept inside.

That's all good in theory, but in practice it did not work out that way for us.  We rescued Tucker from the dumpster at out first apartment when I was in law school.  The vet guessed he was about 8 months old at the time, although he was small for his age.  We took him in, and he settled happily into our home.  In those first few months, he spent hours launching himself at the sliding glass doors, chasing the birds that liked to hang out at our feeders on our deck, and digging up all my houseplants.

Tucker expressing his gratitude for our having provided him 
with food, shelter, and often undeserved affection.

The honeymoon of our relationship with Tucker probably lasted only about 2 months before he started escaping.  Regularly.  We developed elaborate twists and blocking mechanisms to keep Tucker from getting out while we were going in.  He was particularly adept at scooting out while groceries were coming in.  Each time he escaped, he'd rocket down the three flights of external stairs and around the back of the building into the woods, with us hot on his heels.

Over the years we acquired various other pets, starting with our old dog.  They became fast friends, but I think Tucker's chief appreciation of Clancy was that he provided additional opportunities for escape.  Tucker became an expert at going out between Clancy's legs when Clancy was coming in.  After a while, the two began to collude together.  Clancy was 1/2 border collie and smart as a whip.  He taught himself how to open doors to let Tucker out.  It got to the point where we had to keep the doors dead bolted or the storm doors locked, or Clancy would work them open and Tucker would make yet another break for it.

A peaceful interlude among friends

Scheming.  Definitely scheming.

As an aside, Clancy also taught himself how to open the refrigerator door and help himself to the contents.  Ah, border collie brains.  I actually sometimes appreciate that my Basset hounds are dumber than a box of rocks.  At least they pretend to be.

The escapes went on for years, and would have gone on forever if Tucker hadn't started marking everything we owned.  Although we had had him neutered immediately when we rescued him, he began systematically marking the doors, walls, windows, counters, and pretty much everything else in the house.  We took him to the vet numerous times, but no one had a good explanation.  Tucker had just found yet another way to get back at us for holding him hostage against his will.  He even peed on our pillows in some particularly nasty fits of pique.

He was miserable.  We were miserable.  After years of battle, in desperation one afternoon, I threw open the back door and shouted at him to "GET OUT you little *expletive, expletive, expletive, expletive*!!!!!"  I figured that if he got hit by a car the next week, at least he would have spent the week happy.

Surprisingly, letting Tucker out pretty much solved everything.  It's been two years now that he's been living outside.  He's a different cat - happy, easy going, affectionate, laid-back.  He's a tough little booger who sorted out his place in the local feral cat hierarchy without hesitation, and spends his days lazing about the yard.  I feel wicked guilt pangs about it, but no amount of guilt could induce me to try again to confine that maniacally wild animal indoors for more than 24 hours.  And wild he is.  During the summers, he only comes in the house for perhaps an hour a day for a brief stint on a lap and some food.

Tucker, looking like he owns the universe.

Tucker defending his back stairs from an interloper upstart 
feral kitten who is getting too big for his britches.

That's not to say there aren't repercussions.  Back to the chickadees - I came home on Wednesday to find he'd caught, torn the wings off, eaten, and regurgitated a chickadee on my back steps.  My chickadee.  I contemplated strangulation, but told myself sternly that a cat is a cat, and it's not his fault he has hunting instincts.  Judging by the location of piles of feathers, I think said chickadee was getting a drink or perhaps taking a bath in the puddle of water next to our back door.  Time for Tucker to get a new bell on his collar to give the wildlife a fighting chance.  Too bad he tears them off within a day or two.

I broken-heartedly opened the side door of the nest box and peered in at the sweet little pile of lonely eggs.  9 of them.  With no one to warm them.

I swore at Tucker.  He tends to bring that out in me.

All night I felt terrible about it.  I checked the box several times that evening, but it remained empty.  What was going to happen to the chickadee's mate?  How long should I wait before emptying out the nest box in hopes some other chickadee pair might move in?

We were awakened at 5:00 the next morning by a chickadee singing at the top of its lungs in the spruce tree outside our bedroom window.  I'm assuming it was a male, but I really have no way of knowing.  He kept it up for hours until we left for work.  When I came home from work I opened the side of the nest box and peered in, expecting that pathetic lonely pile of eggs to still be there.  But there weren't any.  None.  Each and every egg was gone.

Puzzled, I went and sat on the back steps for a bit and watched.  Two chickadees occasionally went in and out.  Could it be that another pair had moved in that quickly?  Or perhaps my rolling stone papa chickadee had found another lady that quickly?  Given that it's a chickadee nest box with a hole far too small for blue jays or other eggs stealing varieties of birds to get in, I assume a chickadee emptied the motherless eggs out to prepare for a new set.

Indeed, it appears so.  Now if you look in the nest box, a pair of beady little black chickadee eyes looks back at you.  And if you happen to peer in when mama is gone, you can spot a neat pile of shiny new chickadee eggs.  There were 5 last time I looked.  Here's the new resident's backside.

I really don't know if the male found a new mate, or if it's an entirely new pair of chickadees in there.  I'm just happy we might have baby chickadees this year after all, no thanks to my wretch of a cat.

When my husband told the story to one of his work colleagues, she got visibly upset.  Was she angry with my little #$%! of a cat who caught then probably tortured and ate a sweet chickadee?  Nope.  Not in the least.  She was furious that a widowed chickadee might have sought and found a replacement mate that quickly without even mourning for his dead mate.

Ah, chickadee mating politics, from a human perspective.


Carol April 25, 2010 at 6:01 PM  

Maybe you could build a feeding pen that the cat couldnt get into...feeders and bird bath inside....It could be a birdie gazebo or some such thing....bird house and all....

Woodswoman Extraordinaire April 25, 2010 at 6:28 PM  

We have a feeder in a cage that works perfectly for that purpose, although its design was to keep squirrels out. You're definitely right about the bird bath, though!

Woodswalker April 25, 2010 at 9:37 PM  

My sympathies about the chickadee. And also about the cat. We once adopted an adult cat that was so miserable inside that she grew clinically depressed and would pull all kinds of tricks to sneak out when she could. Until she got hit by a car and killed. The three shelter cats we have now seem perfectly happy inside. Thank God.

Rick December 20, 2010 at 10:59 AM  

We have numerous chickadees throughout the year in our yard in Saskatchewan; and, of course, our female cat is an avid hunter of them. What is extremely interesting is that the cat has learned to mimic the sounds of chickadees and young robins. She will call them in to her as she hunts. She lays on the roof of our shed and the chickidees seem to like the tall cedars we have there. She mimics their calls and they come to her.
She also seems to catch numerous sparrows but I do not think she has figured out the sparrow sound as yet.

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