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 Wild Things…
Gardening for Wildlife 
By Karen Vizzi
    Gardening for wildlife offers many unique and wonderful opportunities to observe the natural world in our own backyards. Very little compares to the thrill of watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis or a baby bird fledge from the nest.
     But the great circle of life can also reveal unpleasant sights as well. Our place at the top of the food chain sometimes blinds us to the reality of nature. For example, the other day I was out in the garden bird watching when I was startled by noises I had never heard before. A large pussy willow serves as a favorite perching place for many of my feathered friends, and they had gathered there for our daily feeding ritual. All of a sudden there was an explosion of birds, leaping from branches and screeching as if the sky were falling. I looked up just in time to see a magnificent sharp-shinned hawk maneuvering through the hedgerow like a Top Gun fighter pilot. She twisted and turned with unmatched grace and missed a mourning dove by the slightest of hairs, or feathers as the case may be. I watched this scene in both horror and fascination. I knew instantly that her next target would not be as lucky to escape.
     I call December the Hawk Month, because I have been graced with a visit from at least one bird of prey every December for the last few years. Last year, an American Kestrel came to call and the year before, an immature Cooper’s Hawk. These visits are strangely always in December, but not in any other month. I say “graced” because birds of prey have captured my heart and imagination. Graceful, skilled, brave and proud...they are truly magnificent creatures and often misunderstood. Raptor sightings in a city garden are rare, but considering the smorgasbord of songbirds at feeders, these visits should not be unexpected. Songbirds are standard dietary fare for many raptors. No matter how distasteful the predator/prey dance may appear, these events are the natural order of things and must be accepted as such by the wild gardener.
     However, there exists another garden predator of songbirds that most certainly does NOT belong to the natural order of things…the house cat. Now before anyone gets their dander up, let me begin by saying that I am a proud and loving owner of a very wonderful and ornery cat. And yes, he sits by the window, dreaming of the  havoc he could create… if only I would release him. I have argued all of the points with well-meaning, feline-minded friends. “But he WANTS to go outside <big whine>…it’s his nature to hunt!” It is also the nature of teenagers to get into trouble behind the wheel of a car, but most people would not facilitate that activity. 
     Unfortunately, gardeners tend to be romanced by the image of the sleepy cat, curled up beneath the catmint, completing the storybook picture of the perfect garden. But house cats are not natural or indigenous predators in the Northeast.  They are an introduced species (by humans) and are responsible for significant damage to the songbird population.  Some experts estimate they are the single biggest cause of premature avian death. Cats simply do NOT belong wandering around outside.
If you don’t believe me, then please ask your veterinarian. I am certain he or she will concur. Cats who roam are extremely susceptible to feline leukemia, rabies and other horrors as well as injury from fights and cars. My humble advice is to keep kitty indoors. Save a bird, and save your cat.
Bird Brainers: While many birds molt to drabber plumage in the fall, the male Northern Cardinal actually does the opposite. He becomes brighter and more colorful as winter progresses.
Butterfly Bullets: Unlike the popular monarchs and swallowtails, many species of butterflies are extremely tiny, measuring ½ inch or less.
Let It Be: When harvesting holly branches for holiday decorating, be sure to leave a few berries on the bushes for the birds.

 
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