Tuesday, May 15, 2007
DUDES (Diurnal Urban Detritus Eating Sparrows)
There are at least a dozen outdoor housecats on my block. And, as you might expect, not a whole lot of ground dwelling small wildlife. A few salamanders, the very occasional rat (the only times I've seen these there were at least two cats in purrsuit) and some squirells which can outclimb any of the cats. And there is really only one bird species that spends much time on the gound, a big drab brown sparrow called the California Towhee.
Today I saw two of them fighting. A frantic ball of beaks and feathers twisting crazily through the air. They were so intent on mauling each other, they crashed first into the neighbors' fence, then onto the driveway. The instant they touched down, still rolling and pecking, a cat appeared a few yards from them, coming for them at full speed. The cat pounced, and while it was in the air the towhees joined it, but as it began to come down, they accelerated straight upwards. The cat got nothing but the feathers they had torn from each other.
I've seen birds escape preditors before, but nothing quite that close or sudden. These birds clearly had practice. How could they not, given the feline density around here? But somehow, California Towhees seem to thrive, feeding on the ground, in exactly the kinds of neighborhoods that are full of cats.
Like most species able to exploit human created niches, they've got a bright future ahead of them. The cats could even be good for them, keeping out rodents and other birds that would compete with the Towhees for food.
And that is how we get from natural history observation to testable hypothesis.