Native, Invasive: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2019

Looking out the kitchen window recently, I noticed that my little female cat, Astrud, was staring intently at something.  I assumed that what she was concerned about was the neighbor’s big tom cat who, at times, sneaks into my garden, so I went outdoors to shoo him away.  Well, it wasn’t the neighbor’s tom cat that Astrud communed with, but instead, this juvenile Virginia OpossumDedelphis virginiana.

The two of them engaged in a relaxed standoff, neither seemingly fussed about one another’s presence.  I sat down about 10 feet away to observe; Astrud casually glanced at me, while the opossum snuffled and sniffed.  Opossums have poor eyesight, but a refined sense of smell and I’m sure he/she was assessing the situation with the nose.  Within a couple of minutes, Astrud lost interest in the opossum, trotting away to investigate something new and different.  The opossum, on cue, bundled under a gate, waddling off to unknown places.

Am I staring at you or are you staring at me?

It was a cute encounter and fascinating to observe.

I take a benign view of opossums.  They amble through my garden during the night, sometimes I see them early in the morning. When I dump the day’s veggie remains in the compost (usually after dark and I always forget to bring a flashlight), I jump when I realize there’s a marsupial munching on a meal.  I fret when one moves into the owl house, but otherwise, I consider opossums as part of the garden and local environment.  Opossums bother no one and eat a variety of foods, which, upon expulsion of the seeds, helps the spread of native plants.  They sometime eat rats and mice and I’m all for that.

I’ve come across people who are creeped-out by opossums.   I think their squeamishness results from wariness about opossum behavior.  Opossums are shy and mostly active at night. They’re secretive, skulking, and mostly unseen; nighttime activity is intrinsically uncomfortable for some folks.  Opossums also have that bare tail and lots of pointy teeth, and they’ll hiss to be scary if cornered, though generally, they’re not aggressive critters.  And–let’s be honest here–in the looks department, they’re not pretty.  They’re certainly not as pretty as the average cat; Astrud would win a beauty contest, hands-down.  But why do most people favor their cute kitties, who are outdoor, invasive killing machines, over a less-than-gorgeous native critter, one who has a place in the ecosystem, who evolved here and belongs here?  Opossums are some of the oldest mammals inhabiting North America.

I wouldn’t dream of installing an invasive plant in my garden–not for a minute–and I have tut-tutted when others, who, usually in ignorance or in response to poor advice, planted something that is invasive.  I’m always (okay, usually) polite in correcting information about native plants versus invasive plants, employing a teachable moment policyUsing well-adapted non-natives in the garden?  Sure, I have plenty of those and encourage others to use them, but I’m careful not to promote or utilize recognized invasives in my garden and encourage others to go native or use non-invasive, non-natives.

However, my go native self-righteousness doesn’t apparently extend to preventing my cats from roaming the garden.  I allow my cats (I have two) outdoors, and they’re not a native species to North America, though there’s certainly a good argument that they’re well-adapted.

Astrud is primarily an indoor cat.  She ventures into the back garden for brief visits:  she loves to go out first thing in the morning for a few minutes, and then again near sundown for an hour or so.  My other cat, Nuri, is a true indoor/outdoor cat, though is spending more time indoors as he ages and since he was diagnosed with heart disease.  Originally, I’d planned to keep Nuri indoors only, but that one time that I let him out, well, he decided outdoors was a great place to be a cat.  Of course all cats, mine included, might catch birds, but until the past few years I wasn’t aware of just how much damage outdoor domestic cats inflict on native birds.  Using information from 2013, it’s estimated that the “free-ranging” domestic cat population kill 1.3-4 billion birds each year in the US.

That’s a lot of birds.  As well, these same cats kill a variety of  small mammals and other wildlife.

So why let them out at all if I’m so concerned about preserving native habitat in my urban environment?  Why the inconsistency? I guess it comes down to the oh-so-human practice of hypocrisy–and like most humans, I am a practitioner thereof.

Wild things have many obstacles to their survival: loss of habitat, agricultural and home garden chemical use, increasing urbanization…and domestic cats.  My cats have hunted and killed native wildlife in my garden; fortunately, only a few have fallen to their skills.  Still, some small snakes, lizards, and yes–birds have been killed by my pets and I’m ashamed that I allowed them outside to inflict harm to endemic species.  That said,  as I’ve learned more about our native fauna, I’ve worked hard to provide a safe haven for wildlife in my garden and my cats are only out when I’m home and can keep my eyes on their actions.

What to do?  Well, the best thing is to keep cats indoors.  They’ll live longer and wildlife will be safer.  Going forward, any cat I adopt will be an indoor cat, but my two are older and daily habits are tough to break. Astrud is basically an indoor cat, with a few minutes outside most days.  With Nuri, it’s more complicated, because he’s always been indoor/outdoor fella and it’s hard to teach an old cat new tricks–or something to that effect.

I limit the cats’ outside time–especially during spring and autumn bird migration, and when the resident baby birds fledge–to early nighttime and when I’m in the garden supervising their feline affairs.  Most of the time, both cats wear a BirdsBeSafe collar, which is made by good folks to help birds be safe from cats.   Doesn’t Nuri look handsome in his BirdsBeSafe collar?  And his bird companions don’t seem to mind him at all!

The theory behind the collar is that it’s not a bell on a collar (ahem–the dinner bell) which will protect a bird from a stalking cat, but the bright colors on the collar, which (specifically) song birds discern.   Cats are good predators in part because their coloring serves as camouflage and they move stealthily, so that a bell probably won’t sound in time for a bird to escape.  But with the BirdsBeSafe collar, songbirds are alerted by movement and bright colors, and will fly to safety.

For more information on this collar, check out this 2015 article from Science Direct about the effectiveness of the BirdsBeSafe collar.

While birds might be safer with a cat wearing the collar, the collar won’t help butterflies or amphibians from becoming victims.  The collar on the cats is only a partial solution to allowing my purry invasives out in the garden, but for now, it works: my fuzzy-butts have some outdoor time (with supervision) and wildlife is generally safe in my garden.

What wild critters are in your garden? Do you have workaround to make your garden safe for wildlife, while allowing pets some outdoor time?  Please leave your link when you comment here and happy wildlife gardening!

33 thoughts on “Native, Invasive: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2019

  1. Don’t forget that opossums do not get rabies….something to do with their body temperature….and they eat ticks…..so very desirable in the garden. My two lady cats go briefly into the garden each day but don’t bother the birds, are wary of the squirrels (which are mostly bigger than they are) but have caught the occasional lizard…but softmouthed, so that I have been able to free the little critters. The hawks, on the other hand, kill both birds and squirrels in my yard.

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    • Opossums have a body temperature of about 94 degrees–too cold for the rabies virus to survive. They can get rabies if bitten on the face or neck because it would be near the brain stem, but that’s about the only way. Yes–they eat ticks–Yay!

      Hawks are part of the natural cycle; I don’t begrudge that at all.

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  2. I can’t believe you got that picture. I love to watch wild baby animals because they have not figured it all out yet. I recently came across the stats for cats. My cat is indoors, but my neighbors cats have taken birds and rabbits from my yard.

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    • I guess all I can say is that opossums are much slower than either bees or birds, so a decent photo is much more easily attained. 🙂 I agree that the opossum is young; I think it lives in a neighbor’s shed, just behind me. Good for you for keeping your cats indoors–we’re working on it and I also have more problems with neighbors’ cats.

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  3. I admire how you have adapted your way of thinking. I admit to having some pretty ragey feelings towards my neighbourhood outdoor cat owners, but feel powerless to do anything about it. It’s encouraging that you are open minded enough to change, something that can be very hard.

    I love possums! They are rare in my neck of the woods, but I find them cute. I also hear they are great tick eaters and do not carry rabies.

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    • I get frustrated too, but change is hard for all of us. I have cats, but some cat folk are difficult to convince; I hope I’m not one of those. 🙂

      I know lots of people who just love opossums. Babies are actually really darling and yes to the tick eating and the no rabies. Win!

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  4. Great shot of that opossum. But those adorable cats in their collars – SO handsome! Good information about the BBS collars. And a great point about who the invaders are – and don’t we humans win top prize in that category?!

    We have 3 cats,they go outside for a bit of sun and “smellivision” on the back patio but only under constant supervision. If they start to stalk anything, back inside they go – we aren’t taking any chances. Anyone who feels conflicted about keeping a cat indoors should check with their vet and I’m guessing they’ll quickly be dissuaded from any idea they are depriving their felines.

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    • Thanks–the shot really was an easy one; I love things that don’t flit away!

      Yes, we humans are quite the scourge in the world! I do pretty much what you’re describing for my two cats and yes, I think most cat experts agree that they’re (and everyone else) are better off indoors.

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    • Haha. I have no idea is the opossum is actually sweet, but he/she certainly is shy. I’m sure it lives in/around/or under my neighbor’s shed and I don’t mind its visits to my garden. I’m glad the cats have the collars, but I still keep a wary eye on them!

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  5. How lovely to have opossums in the garden. Much nicer than cats. It is heartening to read about responsible cat owning. In the UK, cats kill 27 million birds a year. It is a constant worry at this time of the year with three cats from nearby houses patrolling the garden. Vulnerable baby birds will be around soon. And apart from the birds, they look upon my raised veg beds as giant sand boxes to do their business in.

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    • It’s amazing that there are any birds left! I know what you mean about having cats in the garden, they are dangerous for wildlife. Hopefully, we can keep them from catching the little fledlings–they deserve a chance for a good bird life. As well, that whole garden-as-litterbox thing is very annoying.

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    • I remember you’ve talked about that cat! It isn’t an easy situation and cats are predators–neither intrinsically good nor bad, it’s just what they are.

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  6. My wild critters currently consist of hundreds (yes, hundreds) of snails.

    Our cat, who is now 17 years old, only spent time as an indoor/outdoor cat twice. His first home, where he was abandoned or left behind, made him an outdoor cat. We kept him inside upon adoption as we lived in an apartment on a very busy street. He remained indoor until a few years later when we managed to move into a place that wasn’t on a busy street. He would come home with tufts of fur and specks of blood, neither his, on occasion. He’s been only inside the last 13 years or so but still loves to sniff at an open window.
    Our dog loves to chase squirrels. He’s far too large, loud, and slow to catch anything.

    I’ve had a soft spot for opossums as we had an amazing teacher in second grade and one of the amazing things he did was have a woman bring in a litter of baby opossums she’d rescued for us to learn about (including to never touch a wild one.) I’ve always thought they were cute.

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    • Sounds like your kitty has lived a good life, especially once she found you. 🙂 I volunteer at Austin Wildlife Rescue and just yesterday, fed Pedialyte and some meds to baby opossums. I’m in the “meh” category about their looks, but the babies are really darling–not lots of personality, but really cute.

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  7. Here’s a cat problem directly caused by irresponsible people, and that’s feral communities of cats who have been dumped – almost never spayed or neutered and sometimes pregnant – with no access to food or water, often in extreme temperatures. Terrible suffering! The ones that do manage to survive do so, I am assuming, by eating small mammals and insects. A few find each other and form colonies in which they continue to breed. They are not suitable for adoption but they are still living beings, on their own through no fault of their own, and I can’t in good conscience deliver them to be destroyed.
    I don’t know how to solve the people problems of irresponsibility and just plain cruelty, but if the cats show up at my house – and somehow they so often do; I must be a cat magnet – they get live trapped, taken to a rescue organization vet or an individual vet who deals with ferals, and they get what they need, plus neutered or spayed. Then I provide food, water & shelter in the form of a dry shed with beds & heated in winter, where they are free to come and go as they please. My hope is that this cuts down dramatically on any wildlife they may kill for survival. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s a small incursion into a small part of the problem and, thankfully, I’m nowhere near alone in caring for a colony or two. Now, if we could only get those people to stop reproducing both their behavior & their callous mindset … problem solved! Some people should never, ever be around animals, IMO.

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    • It sounds like you’re improving a bad situation. It isn’t the cats’ fault that they’re homeless or that they produce litters–that’s squarely on human irresponsibility–so thank you for taking care of them.

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  8. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m a hypocrite, too. Our old cat reigned supreme in his neighborhood, and always watched the going-ons from the top of our car. And yes, he would catch the occasional critter, and I felt bad almost every time. The one we recently adopted from our neighbors, is more of an indoor cat. He goes out a little here and there, but hasn’t shown nearly the same kind of need for the outdoors as our dear Manneman. I love the photo of the Possum, and the one of the stare-down. I may be in the minority, but I think they are adorable!

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    • We’ve all been there…. I’m glad you have a new cat in your life and I’m glad he’s mostly wanting to be indoors. It’s a hard one because cats like to be out, and it’s easy for us to let them out, but it’s just so much better if they’re in. Baby opossums are darling (see my response above) and they’re interesting critters–I don’t mind them one bit!

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      • That new cat is not one I would have chosen, unfortunately. Maybe he’ll come around, and maybe he’s still adjusting, but I’m not sure what’s ailing him. He has started peeing around the house, and I just HATE that. If anything, he reminds me of how much I loved our old cat, who had such a fantastic personality… The only person the new one seems to really like is my older son, and he is moving to Sweden in a couple of months. I keep wondering if he will go through separation trauma yet again when that happens, and whether that will amplify all his bad behaviors yet again. (He is our neighbors’ cat, and we volunteered to take care of him while they do a three-year stint in Korea. I’m sure it was traumatic for him to lose all of them overnight.) Anyway, I’m not quite sure what to do with him to make him not pee everywhere… It was bad the first few days, then it was smooth sailing for several weeks, and now we’re back where we were again. I can live without his affections, but that peeing thing drives me crazy! Sigh…

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      • A peeing-in-the-house cat is no fun, to be sure. I imagine you’re right though, that he’s traumatized by his family’s departure. I hope he can settle in. My Nuri is having a few issues in that direction, but it’s more about one of his heart meds and so far, it’s not been much of a problem.

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  9. I never knew we had a possum until one day last spring when the bathroom remodeling crew was taking a lunch break on the front porch and saw a baby possum emerge from under a small yew hedge. A moment later the mother possum came out and retrieved it, heading back into concealment. One of the crew took some pictures with his phone to show me. Never seen a possum here before or since. What I do see are gray squirrels (always), rabbits and chipmunks (occasionally), voles (always deceased), and Sheldon the neighborhood Moocher Cat. Mice are definitely around. I know there are rats as well but thankfully have not seen one firsthand yet.

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    • I’m sure you have more than that one around, but they’re shy about being seen. We don’t have either chipmunks or voles, but we do have our share of Moocher Cats. And rats. There are always rats.

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  10. First, an almost completely unrelated comment: your cat’s name, Astrud, is only the second time in my life I’ve known someone to have that name. The other was Astrud Gilberto. I’ve not thought of her in years, and now I’m listening to her music, with pleasure.

    I may have mentioned that an adult possum and I came together at the bottom of my steps recently. It’s toothy fear response wasn’t pretty, but we backed off from each other, and all was well. I think they are cute, and it pains me that so many end up as roadkill.

    As for the cats: yes. Dixie Rose always was an indoor cat. She had a chair next to a window where she could watch the birds at the water bowl, and such chattering you’ve never heard. But even when the window was open, she never attempted to go through the screen, and the birds soon figured out that she wasn’t a real threat.

    Unfortunately, I have a cat lady for a friend. She lives in the country, and has so many cats roaming around I’m embarassed to even tell the number here. We’ve talked about it, and she traps from time to time, but I don’t think she’ll ever get rid of them all. Since she’s in her 90s, the problem may be self-limiting. It’s strange, because she’s quite a bird fancier, too. Sometimes, rationality just doesn’t cut it when trying to deal with these issues.

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    • Astrud is named after the Astrud you mention! My son didn’t originally like the name I gave her, so I challenged him to come up with a better one–he did! My Astrud also has a dulcet voice. 🙂

      You were wise to keep Dixie Rose indoors. I wish that I’d stuck to my kitty guns with Nuri, though he hasn’t been too hard on wildlife.

      “Toothy” is a good description. I volunteer at Austin Wildlife Rescue and even the babies open their mouths and show their teeth. When I was last there, two adults were recuperating from injuries probably caused by a car. One was a mother with babies.

      Wow–90 years old and still hanging with cats! You’re right, of course, rationality isn’t really the issue here….

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  11. You might find this to be amusing:
    https://tonytomeo.com/2018/09/16/kenny/
    This is not in my garden, but is in western San Jose a few miles away. Opossums are VERY common in parts of Beverly Hills (in the Los Angeles region) but not in others. It took me a while to figure out that they were common in the same places where rats are more of a problem. I do not like encountering them out and about, but I do happen to approve of their work there. The few who live here take a bit of the fruit, but they tend to eat one fruit at a time, rather than taking a bite out of each one. In that regard, I do not mind sharing. The few apples, figs or whatever they want are worth their diligence at keeping rats out of the same fruit. Unfortunately, they do not keep raccoons or deer away, and the raccoons are really nasty and belligerent. I do not know if skunks take fruit or vegetables, but it they do, they do not take much. They seem to be satisfied with taking the snails, slugs and grubs, which is just fine with me. For that work, they can take all the fruit and vegetables they want. Bobcats get enough mice, rats and rabbits to bother with the opossums, raccoons or skunks. Mountain lions primarily eat dear.

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  12. Thanks for the tip about the collar. Our last cat was a voracious hunter – voles, mice, rabbits, birds, small dogs (just kidding) – no creature was safe. And it was impossible to keep her inside. After we retire we’re thinking we’ll get another kitty or two, and try again to keep them is inside cats. Incidentally, I like Opossums. Did you know they eat ticks in addition to rats? Judy finds them repulsive, though.

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    • You’re welcome. It’s not a complete fix, but I think the birds at least are more aware when the cats are out. I’ve never really owned a super-duper hunter. They’ve all hunted a little, few have specialized in birds. My Nuri (the grey guy) was a great ratter in his youth–no complaints there.

      I do know about the tick eating! I don’t mind them, but I’m with Judy, I think they’re rather unattractive. Very unattractive. I think it’s partly that naked tail–I like mammals to have some fur there. The babies are quite cute, though.

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