Monday, November 24, 2008

Cat feeders and shrewd larders

Do you feed wild birds?

When we first moved into our current house, I did.

I maintained three birdseed feeders and a woodpecker station plus a suet board and two platform feeders (primarily for squirrels and chipmunks--stocked with cracked corn and stale bread).

All of the feeders were a source of endless entertainment and fascination for me and the kids. An amazing array of songbirds, woodpeckers, birds-of-prey, rodents, deer, raccoons, and opossum, and assorted other wildlife(!) visited the feeders.

But our most memorable visitor was a feral cat.

A Siamese cat of formidable power and build. Apparently an important local feline, he often sunned himself on our front porch. He was a handsome cat but definitely not people-friendly.

Admiring glances were welcome but, please, no petting.

Mr. Big-stuff Siamese would just slink away if you got too close.

One morning, little daughter C. and I were looking at goldfinches on the niger thistle tube and suddenly a velvety brown paw slashed forward and decapitated a finch... head flung one way, body the other, blood spurting everywhere.

C. was screaming. I was annoyed. The aloof Siamese? Turns out he was a homeless guy masquerading as a bank president.

A bit of investigation led to the discovery that this mighty hunter had a bad rep all over the neighborhood -- for leaving mostly-uneaten though mortally maimed songbirds next to everyone's feeders.

neighbors were sheltering and feeding the stray Siamese beast: besides the hearts and livers of goldfinches, he was consuming tuna fish, fancy canned cat feasts, leftover chicken wings, and other delights -- while lounging in garages or porches, often on special cat beds purchased for his comfort. Nobody could pet him, let alone get too close. This cat walked alone. But he liked an audience.

His highness, the death machine.

I decided to trap this cat.

My husband was annoyed with ME about my decision, this was one of the blow-out fights of our marriage. He said I would be catching one of our neighbor's pets (the cat obviously wore a collar and tags) and they would justifiably hate me for it and only an idiot would do such a socially-irresponsible thing. I countered that our neighbor should be keeping their cat indoors, where it would not be destroying songbirds and wreaking environmental havoc.

Anyhow, after capturing an interesting array of other wildlife, I successfully trapped the yowling feral Siamese. Because he was still wearing a collar with an expired rabies tag from a vet clinic in a faraway city, the local cops were able to reunite him with his "owner", a woman who had been missing her kitty for over a year. She had resorted to hiring a psychic, after lost-pet posters and all else had failed. The psychic told her the cat was "living near water and happy". The psychic was right. The Siamese had gained weight in his year plus of living wild, and he could enjoy a view of the lake while lounging on the roof of our garage.

Lord knows he spent enough time up on top of the garage, sunning his rotund belly full of goldfinches and fledgling cardinals and baby chipmunks. The killer-Siamese's human mom figured out where I lived from vague police reports with a vicinity and house description... and she showed up to shower me with thanks! When she knocked on the door and sternly asked if this was the house that had trapped a cat, thinking of my husband's admonishments, I wanted to run and hide. Couldn't because she was hugging me too much.

A happy ending!

Especially for local birdlife.

When H. was sick, none of this bird feeding mattered anymore and I let it all go. The feeders were empty for several years, listing over and lurching sideways. Mostly empty: house sparrows filled one up with grass and twigs and raised families. That was interesting, they reared their babies in a glass-walled house, just a few feet and a energy efficient double-walled pane of glass away from me, as I stood at my ironing board.

Last weekend, I straightened the tilted feeders and refilled them, and added a new platform feeder just outside the family room windows.

Cat TV! Our cats have been glued to the recently exposed row of three windows in the newly-christened family room. The family room, formerly known only as an inhospitable repository for stacked up dozens of boxes, filled with weird Victorian glassware, heaps of assorted trash and Lederhosen and bazillions of bridge tallies, etc.

Having set up an environmentally-friendly covered platform feeder (made of recycled plastics), what kind of visitors should be expected? Turns out they are of all kinds-- and most interesting ones!

The image above is famous. It is from a Flickr account labelled Cool Cat in Bird Feeder, which was invited to participate in LOL Cats. I am still a dismal failure at getting any of our THREE digital cameras (let alone two cats) to cooperate with my blogging photography endeavors. If I could only get a digital camera to function, LOL Cats would be begging me for permission to post images of my cats observing the new platform feeder.

Meanwhile, believe me, the cats are gorgeous and spend most of their days happily glued to their observation posts on the windowsill. Watching chickadees and nuthatches and squirrels and, most recently, a mysterious animal that was moving at lightning speed.

My husband mentioned on Sunday afternoon that "the cats seem more interested in the fast mouse than anything else at the feeder."

I went to check out the "fast mouse" and it was like no mouse I had ever before seen...

a swirling tumult.

A pane of glass and about two inches of distance away from the kitties and my eyes. Diving over and under fallen leaves and bark mulch. Squirming above and then below my line of vision, under the feeder, next to the feeder, in the feeder. No visible ears, with minute, probably useless eyes. Tiny, stub-tail. Covered in a thick and lustrous pelt of dark black-gray fur.

This was NOT a mouse.

Not a mole.

Wracking my brain, suddenly figured it out: A SHREW!

More specifically, upon checking my field guides: the Northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). A really common animal that I had never observed before.

How cool is this -- Northern short-tailed shrews are poisonous mammals! B. Brevicauda is thought to have emerged in the middle to late Pleistocene, but their ancestors were around much earlier than that. Here is a press release from the University of Alberta, Researchers find first evidence of venom system in extinct mammal :

Currently, there are three types of living mammals with salivary venom-injecting capabilities: the Caribbean Solenodon (found primarily in Cuba), the North American short-tailed shrew, and the Eurasian water shrew. The Australian duck-billed platypus also has venom-injecting capability through a spur on its heel.

Okay, I did know about poisonous spurs on platypuses. Who doesn't? If you grew up reading The Guinness Book of World Records, you know about the platypus. And solendons are just plain weird. I had heard of them but remembered nothing other than their name and strange appearance. But poisons in shrews? Especially local ones? WTF?

Here is reliable info from a print resource:

MacDonald, David (ed.)
The Encyclopedia of Mammals
Facts on File, c1994

P. 762+
…shrews can detect a very wide size range of prey, from 10 cm earthworms to 1-2mm nematodes. Even small mites and the animal’s own external parasites are not exempt…

The bite of some shrews is venomous. The salivary glands of the American short-tailed shrew, for instance, produce enough venom to kill by intravenous injection about 200 mice. The poison acts to kill or paralyze before ingestion, and may be particularly important in helping to subdue large prey like fish and newts which water shrews are known to take.

200 mice? They devour their own parasites? Famously voracious, shrews must consume an average of 43% of their weight daily. Shrews also cache food, especially in fall and winter. Their poison, which includes both a neurotoxin and hemotoxin, is much like snake venom. Specifically, shrew poison is like cobra venom.

Short-tailed shrews can not, like a snake, directly inject poison -- instead they chew it into their prey. Shrews use their toxin to immobilize snails and other foodstuffs, which can then be cached in their larder, insuring a continuous supply of fresh foods. This is important if you need to eat 43+% of your body weight every day.

Owls are the most common predators of Northern short-tailed shrews. B. brevicauda have pungent musk glands on their bellies and flanks, which make them unpalatable to most predators. Cats and dogs will pursue them but rarely eat them, the same is true for most other carnivores. They are just too stinky. Only my beloved great horned owls are regular predators of the short-tailed shrew.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has an excellent brief article on B. brevicauda, which includes animations, pictures and diagrams and a link to a pdf of a much more detailed description from the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM). Here is how the ASM describes the coat color of Northern short-tailed shrews (okay, I found this poetic, hope you do too!):

"sooty-plumbeous above, ashy plumbeous below, varying with the light"

From notes on Blarina brevicauda from the NatureServe Explorer:

Food Comments: Eats earthworms, slugs, snails, insect larvae, millipedes, other invertebrates, and small vertebrates (especially mice in winter). May hoard food (especially snails).

I wanted more information about these spectacular shrews. Especially, how their poisons are delivered and how they work.

Bone Clones offers elephant shrews and tree shrews, but alas, no Northern short-tailed. They do have a seven-foot tall reproduction of the skull and neck vertebrae of a giraffe. Just shy of two grand, mounted on a stand. Not too much cheaper, you can get the giraffe head and neck dis-articulated and without stand. Nevermind the whole giraffe, seven feet of profile is plenty, eh?

The Bone Clones site also offers forensic and comparative anatomy models. These do not come cheap either. For example, you could snap up a Fetal oranguatan for $395. Who on earth is seeking facsimiles of fetal orangutans, enough so that they are commercially available? Well, they are and I must be damn stupid. But dang, Bone Clones have no B. brevicauda whatsoever.

Okay, getting over this, but Northern short-tailed shrews, aka mole shrews, have some kind of funky poison spit going on...and everything about them is pretty fascinating. They do not hibernate. They communicate and observe through echolocation. Cool and then cooler!

Mammals of Wisconsin ( I am reading the print version, but it is also available online) includes quoted material from former-President Theodore Roosevelt on the habits and behavior of the "mole shrew". What? Love that former-President TR is off conducting weird experiments on natural history, especially those involving shrews. Bill Clinton is no way near as inspirational, love that Teddy R. was observing and recording data on B. brevicauda. Don't you, too?

The Shrew (ist) Site is a fantastic web presence, a "shrew shrine" of interesting links and discussion of all things shrewish. Obviously, there are others out there who know and appreciate the shrew in ways far deeper than your laundress and her cats!

Anyhow, the fact that shrews get to eat 43% of their weight, just to maintain themselves, has left me dumbfounded. For I am on forever on a diet and, more recently, badly wearing compression garments yet again. Besides that, guess I am truly sucky at blogging. But hey, like the pugnacious Siamese, I am out here, doing my thing. Say howdy, tell me your feral cat and/or shrew tales.

Best to all!


mary said...

Really nice info on shrews...guess I just inject verbal venom when feeling a bit shrewish, and the following story does have a 'shrewish venomness' to it.

I do have a feral cat story, but it is a friend who feeds about 30 feral cats behind a local feed store. The females produce about five new kittens a year, and the place reeks to high heaven with the 'digested cat food.' There are some pretty cats there, but my favorite ones to see are the ones with some character. One eyed Jack is a beautiful black and brown creature. I think some disease has entered the colony, as Grace, an orange tabby, is nothing but skin and bones with a heart that pounds very hard when you hold her. Will be interesting to see if disease will bring down the number of cats making it through the winter there. I am all for helping creatures in need, but cats reproduce almost as fast as mice and rats, and the list of diseases they spread is extensive. Toxoplasmosis, ringworm, cat scratch fever, feline leukemia, bubonic plague, and rabies are some that come to mind. These cats roam the town, leaving possibly infectious wastes and fleas in every yard they visit. They endanger everyone's pets. Animal control serves a vital function overlooked by most folk.
I know this is not a popular viewpoint, but I dislike finding that cats have been using my carrot patch for a litter box...Kinda gives the carrots a little 'off flavor'.

The Laundress said...

Hi Mary,

Sad about the diseased feral colony. You bring up two very good concerns -- lots of awful feline diseases and zoonotic ones are spread by ferals. Hadn't even thought about the kitty contributions of garden fertilizer--another good reason not to encourage strays.

I am with you on not feeding them! My granny was a feral cat feeder and had a wicked infestation of fleas on all of her porch furniture because of it. Plain lucky none of her human vistors caught anything worse than a few welts.

Thanks for visiting!

Perky Skeptic said...

This is a really interesting post! :) I loved finding out about Bone Clones!

I've got a good semi-feral cat story for you.

We were one of the many suckery adopters of a neighborhood cat who LOVED people and loved to go from house to house in search of love, attention, and food. We actually took him to the vet and all, so we considered him "our cat."

In time, a kitten came into our lives as well-- she showed up mewing in the shrubbery by our house, completely lost and lonely! We took her in, and she proceeded to spend her every waking moment tormenting the big cat. He took this with surprising grace and as much elan as a cat getting pounced-on by a kitten can.

But-- the big cat was a lean, mean, killing machine when it came to all other (non-cat, non-human) animals. I had seen him chase dogs out of our yard! I had seen him bring down a fully-grown rabbit that was bigger than him! And he was LETHAL to birds.

The kitten never did get the hang of birding. She was terrible at it! Once she tried to pass off one of the big cat's bird kills as her own, but he gave her a swat for it, and nobody fell for it anyway. One day, after she had been particularly pushy and annoying to the big cat, he went out... and came back in with the HUGEST pigeon I had ever seen. Worse, it wasn't dead. He had maimed it, and CLEARLY had brought it in the house JUST to show her how much cooler he was than her. He wouldn't let her get too near it. It was practically instructional! "This is how you play with a bird before you kill it."

I chased the lot of them outside and had to clean pigeon blood off my carpets!

The kitten never did learn to catch birds, but she grew up to be a great mouser. :)

The Laundress said...

That is a mighty fine (semi-) feral cat tale. Like the incompetent kitten part especially. Guessing the big guy finally killed and then ate his pigeon? Did he share a bit with the kitty?

I had a friend who had a semi-feral cat housemate, he used to bring home young raccoons for her to admire.

One day, we noticed he seemed to have lots of grains of rice, or something like that, stuck on his tail. It was TAPEWORMS. Ewwwww. He used to lick our faces! Double, triple, bazillion Ewwwwws.

(though, at this point, I am thinking about Maria Callas and her dramatic weight loss, attributed to deliberate ingestion of tapeworms...

Nah. Not going to go there. There are limits, even for shallow Laundresses!

Thanks for sharing, great cat-tale.


Norma said...

You are an amazing story teller and researcher!

I (former vet librarian) don't feed birds because it spreads diseases (mixing species that don't generally flock together), weakens their natural abilities to forage, discourages their natural use as insect control, and draws rodents to your property. And, as you found out, takes their eye off the ball (the cat).

Maddy said...

We're into voles at the moment! However, that first photograph is fabulous!

The Laundress said...

Yeah, the cat feed pic is spectacular!

What is up with voles? Voles? I know NOTHING about them. Hope you are posting on it, will pay you a visit! Thanks for stopping by.


The Laundress said...

Norma, as always,

you are RIGHT! Especially on potentially spreading disease.

I do clean and in warm weather periodically take down and bleach my feeders -- but we have mice and the handsome shrew and a multitude of birds visiting
(plus, during today's snow storm, noticed a rabbit at the feeder, eating cracked corn). Can bacteria spread in below zero temps? I don't think so. Viruses? Certainly. Benefits of feeding, especially high-fat, high protein feeds versus risk of contracting a virus (or parasites?) at feeder?

Hmmm. I hadn't before considered. Off to look for research.

Thanks for your comment, as always very provocative!


mary said...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to my favorite laundress!

Diseases can spread from feeders even at temps below freezing. Didn't you know that bacteria hibernate? Really! Laboratories routinely buy (or did in the old days) different types of bacteria for checking their antibacterial drug susceptibility equipment. Most come freeze dried like the lactobacillus you can buy in the health food stores.
Last winter at the Great Salt Lake near Salt Lake City around 250,000 birds died of avian cholera.

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