Before this story begins, you should know that it has a happy ending. At the finale, you will be rewarded with baby birds chirping happily. But also know that before we get to the happy part, you, the reader, will be asked to navigate instances of animal imperilment and at least one reference to a somewhat gruesome death.
Animals that suffer in today’s tale do so at the paws of Seuss, accomplished huntress resident of our suburban home. Seuss is a tabby cat who appears innocuously innocent in appearance and demeanor until she delivers her bloody goods at your bedroom doorstep.
Our story begins with a pair of tree sparrows alighting in a birdhouse on our patio. It was our third summer in our home, and this was the first time any birds had made a residence of the small brown box tacked to an aspen tree, left by previous owners. My husband and I identified the birds with the pretty blue wings. We learned the male would gather feathers for the nest and the female would lay eggs that would hatch after about 11 days. We told our three children, who were just as excited about the new residents as we were.
But — the cat. Seuss will be four years old this summer. Within her first year, she demonstrated excellent hunting skills. Seuss doesn’t seem interested in actually killing anything, except for in a single alarming instance of a very, very slaughtered bunny. I figure, once she’d caught it, the rabbit turned out to be more than she’d bargained for. A learning experience, if you will. Mostly, since then, she just catches things.
But catching animals isn’t quite enough for our cat — real victory comes after her prey has been delivered into the house. Seuss has blessed our home with countless earthworms, that one very tragic rabbit, and many mice — so many that my husband, Todd, has become quite skilled at noticing sounds of indoor delivery early enough to snatch up misplaced mice with a pair of kitchen tongs and return them to the outdoors, unscathed.
Then there have been birds.
The first time was an honest-to-goodness mystery. Wild commotion in the office — rush to investigate — how on earth did a bird get inside? Take a look around. No open windows. But — Seuss, in a corner, half-bored, sticking around to watch humans deal with her handiwork, like a thief who can’t leave the scene of the crime.
Once caught and released, the bird (a robin), just like the mice, was unharmed. How Seuss can catch a probably-panicked-pecking-and-fluttering bird and haul it through two cat doors without harming one feather on its head is a bigger mystery. And yet, she can. At least four living birds have been deposited into our house. And removed to fly away in what appears to be perfectly good health.
It took Seuss a few days to notice the sparrows. She eyed them like a problem she was determined to solve. The birdhouse on the aspen was a bit too low to the ground and a bit too close to the fence for our comfort. But Seuss couldn’t reach it, could she?
Day 3. A furious leap — Seuss’s claws buried into tree bark, a foot below the birdhouse. She clung for a desperate moment. Sparrows flew into a tizzy, dive-bombing the attacker. Seuss released her hold and raced away.
Now we were on high alert. The children were agitated, memories of slaughter-bunny coming back to vibrant life. (Stuffed animal lying on the kitchen floor — NOT A STUFFED ANIMAL! Blood, splattered on walls! Bits of fur, scattered like rose petals tossed on a grave.)
My husband, usually a live-and-let-live, let-the-cards-fall-as-they-may kind of person, found himself forced into the role of reluctant wildlife warrior. Another tree nearby offered a higher branch. He hates ladders, yet drug out the 10-footer. Before he could even lock it into place, sparrow dad dove for his face and sparrow mom circled his head, chirping madly. Seuss cackled from her perch on a patio chair, at least I think that’s what I heard. My husband was forced into temporary defeat.
Seuss changed tactics. She went airborne division. From the fence, she launched towards the birdhouse like a flying squirrel. The birds were faster, and for a few days the standoff held.
Now might be a good time to mention I’m aware not everyone would handle this situation the same way we did. I’ve known people who keep cats indoors or even declaw them to protect birds. But, like my husband, my philosophy is low-interference. As often as possible, cats, as well as kids, should be allowed to be who they are in the world, naturally.
One iridescent summer evening, we had just settled in the dining room for pork chops and Brussels sprouts when my husband rose to a muted scuffle in the next room.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” he hollered. He is a quiet man, recognized for his rare agitation. We jumped up to see what could have possibly made Todd erupt.
The daddy sparrow, (somehow still illogically) transported inside our house, flapped against a sliding glass door. Seuss hunched like a lioness nearby. I scolded her loudly, forgetting a) I am a low-interference person b) she was acting on instinct and c) she doesn’t speak English.
I snatched Seuss up as the children fluttered in distress. My husband carried the sparrow outdoors, where it flew away — yes, seemingly unharmed.
After dinner was uneasily completed and the children went upstairs, I said, “I don’t like this storyline. I feel like we’ve invited death onto our property.” My husband retrieved the ladder. He settled it under the tree, climbed a rung. Mama sparrow circled his head threateningly. In her heightened state, she may have known he wasn’t a cat, but nor did he look like her savior.
Ladders and birds, two points — husband zero. We went to bed, resigned that saving wildlife was quite possibly beyond our control. But in the morning, I awoke renewed. I’d stand guard with a broom, I said. Todd set up the ladder for the third time as the children looked on.
One rung. Two. I scanned the airspace for assailants. Todd clipped the birdhouse from its wire. We shifted the ladder and he easily re-secured the house to the other tree, four feet higher and well away from the fence.
No birds appeared during the enterprise. “It was because of your magical powers, Mom,” said Maris, my 11-year-old daughter. My husband’s expression read: probably that wasn’t exactly it.
Seuss watched passively but intently with her piercing amber eyes. I crouched and scratched her head. “Seussie,” I said. “Now you can’t hurt birdies, and we won’t yell at you. It’s best for everyone.”
Without access, Seuss lost interest in the whole affair. As for the birds, they easily adapted to their relocated home. After a day or so, I fully believed papa bird had been unharmed by his horrifying abduction and kidnapping.
One evening, daddy sparrow zoomed by Maris and me and dove into the birdhouse. Immediately, a high-pitched rabble filled our ears. “The babies hatched!” we said, delighted by the cheerful chirps of new bird life, and relieved that the whole sparrow family was out of danger — at least the danger that we could control.
A few days later, I nearly stepped on an earthworm that had been strategically placed by an unknown party on the threshold to my bedroom. I considered poking it into the birdhouse as restitution for harassment, but wasn’t sure what tree sparrows ate. And would that really be fair to the worm?
Anyway, it was time to leave the sparrows alone. As often as possible, sparrows, like cats and kids, should be allowed to be who they are in the world, naturally.