For the Birds

condorAs a break for those of us who have been glued to TV-radio-print coverage of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, I want to talk about the return of the condors. I stumbled across this NPR coverage of the once-a-year releases of young birds to the wild after a 20-year effort by the Peregrine Fund helped by various organizations and state and federal agencies.

“With a wingspan that can stretch nearly 10 feet,” the Fund’s Chris Parish observed, “California condors are some of the largest birds in North America. They’re also some of the rarest.  After the population plunged to just 22 in 1982, all were taken into captivity for safe keeping and breeding.”

Just a few are released once a year into the wild in Northern Arizona; others are released in California and in Mexico. Thanks to interventions such as this there are now nearly 500 California condors in the wild.

I have never forgotten seeing a condor in a zoo either in Sacramento or San Francisco.  While we stood in front of the enclosure, the giant bird jumped down from its perch with a huge whoosh of wings. and craned its naked pink neck toward us. That might be where my fear of birds came from and not, as I used to imagine, from my friend Lucy’s parakeet. In high school, when I’d stop at Lucy’s house, her father took great delight in watching my reaction when he’d let the bird loose to fly around the kitchen for exercise.

In spite of that, I’d love to attend one of those condor-release viewings. Especially because the birds circle above cliffs some thousand feet above the eager binocular-wielding bird-watchers. My kind of bird-watching.

bird watchers




Felines Non Grata?

archy & cleo

Wildlife writer Richard Conniff foresees a day when having an outdoor cat will be as socially unacceptable as smoking in the office or not picking up after your dog. The reason? Cats are decimating the wild bird population in startlingly high numbers.

In an article titled “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat” appearing in The New York Times, Conniff states that already cats have caused or contributed to the extinction of 33 species of birds, mostly on islands once cats were introduced. But on the mainland, particularly in this country’s lower 48 states, the intensification of agriculture coupled with expanding suburban and urban areas have shrunk spaces for wildlife to “parks and forgotten scraps of land.” Sharing these spaces, he says, “is a growing population of about 84 million owned cats and anywhere from 30 to 84 million feral or stray cats.” Federal researchers, he says, “recently estimated that free-ranging cats killed about 2.4 billion birds annually in the lower 48 states,” along with 12.3 billion small mammals and about 650 million reptiles and amphibians. Some endangered species are being pushed toward extinction.

Adding to Conniff’s case against outdoor cats is the assertion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that cats are three to four times more likely than dogs to carry rabies. They also “share many other parasites or infectious microbes with humans,” Conniff writes, including one particularly insidious parasite, toxoplasmosis, that lodges in the brain and has been linked to neurological impairments, depression, blindness and birth defects.

None of those reasons is why my family has tried to keep our cats indoors. It is heartbreaking to have to scrape up from the street a cat that’s been hit by a car while the dog is looking out the window whimpering (and you’re thankful the children were not home at the time). Perhaps even more heartbreaking is to have a cat just disappear one day, leaving you with an imagination whirling with possible scenarios: coyote? hawk? bobcat? vicious dog?

I was determined that Archy and Cleo, a half-Siamese brother-sister duo, would be indoor cats when we obtained them from a couple of well-meaning cat ladies (they’d seen a box marked “free kittens” and wanted a say in where they’d end up). Living in New Jersey at the time, we succeeded halfway with the indoor regimen. Cleo, a particularly tiny thing her entire life, was happy to live that life indoors, as was Archy as long it was cold outside. But once the weather turned warm, he’d stand at the door and let loose that ear-piercing Siamese howl until, in desperation, you’d relent. “Oh, go ahead. Just stop the noise.”

He continued his seasonal routine until we moved to Los Angeles where our house has a little greenhouse-like enclosure off the master bedroom. We had a cat door cut into the wall and placed the litter box and a basket of cat toys out there. Suddenly, the cats were outside but not, and Archy lived contentedly until kidney failure felled him at age 18. Cleo, the runt of her litter, who rarely spent a moment outside, died this past year at age 22  ̶  104 in people years. Another seven weeks and she would have made it to 108.

And that’s the biggest reason why all cats should be indoor cats.

Photo: Archy & Cleo