The Cat and the Starlings

I am more familiar with the habits of my neighbour’s cat than I am of those of the numerous starlings that live in my vicinity, because my study widow overlooks the adjacent house roofs which are the domain of the cat. It is a black and white female with the agility needed to patrol these roofs, by leaping from one to another without the hint of a mishap, to assert its ownership of this territory. She happily spends time watching the lower world of street and gardens from a number of favourite vantage points, the most favoured of which is the top of a wall abutting the house, just below the eaves of its gable end.

In the late spring of this year a pair of starlings selected these eves as a suitable place to build a nest. There was a small displacement in the wooden eaves, which gave them entry to their interior, while screening their nest from view. I became conscious of the pair as they collected a variety of twigs, leaves, paper, and fabric which formed the unseen nest. Once, as I assumed, the eggs were laid, the female was rarely seen, while the male was active and attentive. One day I heard the squeaking with signalled the successful hatching of the chicks, which I could not count, because I could not see them, but the constant hunting and gathering behaviours of the parents made me guess that there were at least four.

Now throughout the brooding period, the cat had continued to use its favourite seat on the wall only inches from hidden nest; and the starlings had grown used to its presence, as they flitted past it. But when the chicks were hatched and announced their existence noisily, the cat’s hunting instinct was engaged. When the parent birds were absent, it grasped the eaves with one paw while standing upright on the wall and exploring the gap with the other paw. It appeared that it could not however, reach the nest.

The first time this happened, the parent birds flew off and watched from a distance, only returning when they saw that the cat had moved away. They did this a number of times, but it made real gaps in their programme of feeding the chicks. Eventually, they tried something different. They flew at speed towards the cat, passing close to its ears, before swinging into the nest. Starlings have sharp bills which are a reasonable proportion of their body length. The cat, which I had never seen ruffled, was seriously discombobulated by this aggression. For a while she abandoned her wall altogether, which was then occasionally taken over by another cat also trying to gain access to the nest, and also seen off by the now experienced starlings.

After some days, the original cat returned, but made no attempt to reach the nest. The starlings at first dive-bombed it again, but it continued to sit there calmly enough. It was not long before the starlings ceased to attack it, while continuing their strenuous routine of finding and supplying food to their offspring.

All this time of course I had been watching, hoping that somehow the chicks would survive. I imagined that the fledging process would be the next crisis, when the chicks might be on the ground incapable of resisting the cat. I never saw how they achieved their freedom, but only saw the cat looking in a concerned manner at the eves from where there was now no sound, and no sign of any birds. I concluded that the parent birds had taken advantage of one of cat’s absences, to get their brood fledged and away.

This is the story I prefer to tell; of course the cat may have killed the chicks without telling me, or another cat may have done so. Moreover I have interpreted the various interactions of cat and birds, according to my knowledge and experience of these creatures, which may not be adequate. But I have a sense of energy in the narrative because it seems to me to be about lived relationships, those between the animals certainly, but also between myself and all of them. Life is relation which constitutes its basis, its knowledge and its mystery. God is in relation with every event and all life. Stories like this one, like Aesop’s Fables or Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, are also stories about God.

Jesus said, Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Heavenly Father.

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