Showin' Their Stuff

by Rex Burress

It happens every spring. The mating game turns birds away from the serious business of winter survival into new stages of behavior and turns the time of year into the silly season.

In the spring, you can vaguely be aware of accelerated bird activity but, if you study their ambitious antics, it will be apparent that they have more on their minds than mere outdoor exploration. The Inner Dictum has spoken, and they have no choice but to choose mates and reproduce new life for their species.

Although the diminutive Anna's Hummingbird starts performing along the Feather River and throughout the Bay Area as early as January, swooping high into the sky and plummeting at breakneck speeds in a display meant to impress some desirable lady, and the goldeneye ducks practice courtship gestures, it seems from the moment they attain breeding plumage, coyness commences, and the game gets into full swing at the approach of winter's end.

Considering the early start of the hummingbirds, it came as no surprise when a pair started constructing a nest under the metal canopy of a store in downtown Oroville in mid-February, although the location was unexpected! It was front-page news, featuring a picture of a determined parent adding mossy stuff to the nest on a cable loop meant to hold the store's fluttering banners!

But it was the juncos acting silly in the pathside oak shrub that definitely signaled the start of The Search for the opposite sex. A handsome male was showing off the bright white feathers in his tail, repeatedly spreading it wide and then sort of smugly watching the effects on the female. They danced around the branches like fleas on a hot griddle, playing a game of zealous pursuit thoroughly understood only by those feathered blobs of life.

Meanwhile, a second male complicated the scene, apparently also wanting the woman but unprepared to make a full commitment of tail display. The triangular competition continued, as they paid no attention to my presence. What an opportunity for predators! And no doubt that is a weakness often fatal in the face of mind-altering hormones.

I was sitting in my car watching other attractively dressed male birds prepared to perform outlandish rituals, when a striped tabby cat emerged from the embankment and sat in the sun below my window. As much as I dislike feral cats wreaking havoc to the wildlife along the river, I found myself admiring the furry feline, and in particular the yellow-brown eyes that looked so healthy and alert and hypnotic!

"That cat is hungry and hoping the human in the car will offer a handout," I thought out loud. I had a biscuit that I had planned to eat later, but I succumbed and tossed a piece over the side. The cat approached with that ever-present suspicion, crouching low like a lion stalking a gazelle, and then it grabbed the bread, shook it as if it were alive, finally to retreat over the edge and consume its prize.

I have condemned the little old ladies who pack food down to the half-dozen cats under the viewing structure along the Feather River parkway, and here I was doing it! People know they are not supposed to feed wild animals and create an undesirable habit, don't they? I guess it is the pang of human compassion that causes animal feeders to spread food, and I should know after watching people feeding the birds at Lake Merritt for many years! But cat feeding in the woods is a horse of a different color.

The cat came back. I weakened again, and shared my bounty. But then, to my dismay, a pair of goldfinches landed in the low-growing "old man in the spring" Senecio along the parking lot, first plucking those first seeds of the year, and then flirting with one another about intimacy.

Quick as a flash, the cat melted into the ground and slinked through cover only six inches high, coiled to spring, and - I do declare - would have had a goldfinch meal if I hadn't interceded.

As fast as I could open the door, I clambered out and yelled, causing the goldfinch to take flight and the cat to stare at me, a supposed friend, with a scowl of annoyance. I felt that I had saved a bird but lost a cat friend. My cat compassion turned to hate, and I would like to have disposed of that killer right there. No doubt, it would live to kill a multitude of birds in its lifetime. I goes on all the time - cats on the loose, playing havoc with birds and wildlife. Please, don't feed the cats. And if you have one, keep it in your home. Especially in the spring when birds are silly. Lives depend on it!

After I wrote this article, I was shocked to see an envelope with the same kind of cat I saw at the river staring at me! It was a solicitation from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. For a thousand dollars, you can be a Golden Circle member and provide lifelong care to the neediest animals at Best Friend's ranch, "which never houses less than 1,800 homeless dogs, cats and other animals." I rather cautiously read some of the newsletter. "Kindness" was a big word, and they laid what would seem good logic on you: "No act of kindness is ever wasted, and no thought of love or goodness is ever in vain."

"Simba [the featured cat on the cover that stared at me] has feline leukemia, and your contribution will help take care of it." Am I missing something? Is it an act of kindness to shelter bird-eating cats? A country that admittedly has too many bird-eating housecats contains an organization that cares for cats, even diseased ones. Not so many years ago, we just shot bird-eating cats at the bird refuge. Where is the balance?

I returned to watching the regal splendor of courting birds and leafed through the Sibley bird book, noting the consistency of the bright-colored male breeding plumage of nearly every species. In a world where human ladies put on the make up, in the bird world it is the boys who do it. I hope a sufficient number avoid cats, to live on.

Attraction and audience is the name of the game, whether it is birds, people, or wildflowers. What is your purpose in life!?

© 2001 Rex Burress
February 24, 2001