CATS OF A FEATHER
Copyright 2003, Sarah Hartwell

Before I start, I ought to put this tale into context. Affy (Bast rest her furry little soul) averaged two prey items per year and most of those were released dishevelled but otherwise unharmed. Affy's hunting technique comprised staring intently through the clear plastic cat flap or a nearby window and then launching her large, fluffy, orange self into the back garden with the cat flap clattering wildly behind her and making a ground-shaking thud as she hit the garden path at full gallop. This is not an optimal hunting strategy. During her eleven years on earth (cardiomyopathy carrying her off before her teens), the only birds she ever caught were probably those that had been to busy falling about laughing to take off in time.

If there was ever a Darwin Award for sparrows and starlings for the most stupid way of removing themselves from the gene pool, Affy was its agent. While other cats mastered the art of the stealthy stalk and sudden ambush technique, Affy hoped that at the end of her gallop she might possibly have run over a bird or two. Unfortunately, braking problems and a wide turning circle gave the birds some recovery time before the furry ginger juggernaut hove back into view for a second attempt.

Nineteen year old Queenie had a better grasp of stealth techniques. Unfortunately, nineteen year old cats are less supple than they imagine. More than once I had to pick up an immobilized elderly one-eyed tabby whose rheumaticky joints had set mid-stalk. Adding insult to injury, if she stayed set for too long, she risked becoming a bird perch. A predecessor, the middle-aged ex-feral Scrapper had done his best to teach Affy the rudiments of hunting, but had succumbed to kidney disease after delivering the "prey recognition" lesson and before reaching the "prey dispatch" lesson. It has to be admitted that Scrapper's glory days had been in the past and though his grasp of technique was sound, his lack of teeth and general slowing down made him a less than effective killing machine. It comes to something when a toothless and well-fed ex-feral is seen sucking one end of a slice of stale bread while a blackbird pecks at the other. Thus began a long association between my cats and the local blackbirds, an association that has generally favoured the blackbirds.

Scrapper was also a revolutionary in cat terms. Domestic cats are not renowned for co-operative hunting strategies, but Scrapper was a strategist. Having accepted the daft ginger lump into the household, he decided to pass on his feline wisdom. Unfortunately, Affy was not the most promising pupil as the "great greenhouse debacle" illustrated.

"Okay Affy, you sit here - just in the open doorway of mum's greenhouse," ordered Scrapper in feline body language.

Affy dutifully parked herself in the open doorway, her plumy ginger tail waving slightly as she wondered what game they were going to play.

"I'll go round the other end of the greenhouse and flush the blackbird out of the tomato plants. When the blackbird flies through the doorway, you jump up and get it," he probably said.

"Why don't you catch it?" asked Affy's blank expression and aimlessly twitching tail.

"I'm 12 years old. I only have a couple of teeth. I'm not as agile as I used to be. You're a young agile thing. I'll do the flushing, you do the catching. Okay?"

Scrapper sauntered round to the back of the greenhouse and went "boo" at the blackbird among the tomato plants; this was effected by banging on the glass. The blackbird flew straight towards the doorway at low level. Affy completely and utterly failed to catch it; there is even a suggestion that she ducked to avoid it hitting her on the nose. A disappointed Scrapper sauntered back to the doorway and smacked her ear.

"What happened?" his facial expression seemed to ask, "I told you to jump and get it. It was foolproof!"

At this point, my command of feline body language was insufficient to work out Affy's excuses, but over the next several years her general ineptitude in the hunting department became apparent.

Usually the birds come out best in this household. Scraps of cat food are thrown out and provides a feast for local bird-life and hedgehogs. A steady diet of leftover Kitty-dins chunks in sauce combined with a household full of inept hunters has led to a steady rise in local bird-life. Canned cat food is, after all, not much different from worms and the birds have lovely bright eyes, glossy feathers and are full of energy. Nine out of ten blackbirds say their fledglings prefer it. Seven out of ten song thrushes prefer brand X over Brand Y while the remaining ones are full of "cattitude". In fact, if this goes on for much longer, I may have to buy extra cans to supplement the diet of the growing avian population. I had always assumed there was a food-chain relationship. I feed scraps to the birds. Birds reproduce. Cats eat some of the birds. In a roundabout way I am feeding my cats. There seems to be a fault in the "cats eat birds" stage. Lining their nest with cat combings adds insult to injury; worse still when a blackbird was witnessed trying to pluck hairs from a sunbathing cat's tail and the cat can't even be bothered to protest!

However, I digress from my tale. During the summer in question, some years after Scrapper's passing and several years before one-eyed Queenie joined the household, hubby and I became aware of a distressing pungency in the living room. It was not the sort of pungency normally associated with a feline accident of the semi-solid kind, but a sort of sickly rotting smell. Affy lolled indolently on the sofa, as sweet smelling as ever - a sort of inoffensive warm suede odour unsullied by belch or fart - denying that she was in any way, shape or form associated with the offending odour.

"You've been over-watering the plants," accused husband, eyeing the windowsill with barely disguised malevolence.

Having cultivated those plants for nigh on twenty years, I rebutted his accusation. The person who could not distinguish bindweed from a French Marigold (I'd foolishly let him do the weeding one weekend) was casting aspersions on my horticultural abilities?

"Haven't. You've been sneaking coffee dregs into them again," I countered, knowing his penchant for tipping milky tea or coffee dregs into plant pots.

"You always leave their leaves to rot in the drip tray instead of clearing them up."

"Okay, I'll clear out the drip tray and sterilize it."

"It'll only build up and I'm not living with that stink again."

The plants had long been a bone of contention and were relegated to the greenhouse. Their former home, the living room windowsill was scrubbed with bleach. The chlorophytum, well-chewed by Affy and the only houseplant to survive hubby's ministrations having survived on office coffee dregs before earning an honourable retirement, was exempted from the exile order.

That summer was the hottest for many years. We returned from work the next day to the same sickly smell, except that by this time it had become a more insistent stench which not even the lingering odour of bleach could mask. This time, the witch-hunt firmly pointed the finger at hubby's chlorophytum and particularly on a certain person's office-like habit of emptying the dregs of tea and coffee into it, presumably in case it missed its former diet. It must be the milk putrefying in the plant tray.

"You see, it was your coffee dregs after all," I insisted.

"The book said cold tea and cold coffee are okay for plants," he countered sulkily.

"The book said cold black tea and cold black coffee - it didn't mention sweet white tea and coffee."

After many years of stoically surviving on a diet of tea, coffee and beer, and being chomped by Affy, the chlorophytum was relegated to the patio. Unfortunately the smell remained behind. By this time, it was so insistent that not even flies could locate its exact origin and the cats refused to enter the front room. Eventually, after much following of the nose, the source was identified - a week dead female blackbird behind the hi-fi unit. Despite the threat of a severe claw-clipping, Affy continued to deny everything. Much like the starling behind the freezer a few years earlier, the blackbird had been brought into the house and, unable to find its way out, had committed suicide behind a large heavy object (a descriptions often applicable to Affy herself).

Hubby dutifully did the brave hunter thing and picked up the blackbird by the upturned legs. Unfortunately the rest of the body was so decomposed he came away holding only the legs. The head rolled under the TV. We had to partially dismantle the furniture to remove the various parts of the disintegrating bird, and it took an evening of carpet shampooing and an assortment of air fresheners and pot pourri baskets (keeping cats out of baskets of dried petals being a tale in itself) to get rid of the smell completely, but that was the end of the blackbird episode. Or so we thought. We had little idea that throughout the rest of that summer, Affy's life was to be inextricably linked with that of the local blackbird summer.

A few Saturdays later, the ginger juggernaut pounded into the kitchen with her mouth full of something feathery, noisy and largely uninjured. Let me explain. Affy was of part-Persian ancestry and had inherited a small mouth and ineffective killing bite (sadly she also inherited the cardiomyopathy which led to her premature death). Prey tended to arrive dishevelled, but intact save for a few loose feathers. Growling, she dropped the feathery squawking object in the hallway while she worked out how to subdue it. Feathery squawking object turned out to be a fledgling blackbird. Outside the back door, a male blackbird was shrieking his head off and dive-bombing the back doorstep. Inside the house, a fledgling blackbird was sat in front of a confused orange cat, beak open and asking to be fed. It was evidently convinced it had received an invitation for dinner, rather than an invitation to be dinner.

This novel approach temporarily scrambled Affy's hunting instincts. The bird was not playing by the rules! She looked at me in expectation. I grabbed Affy and bundled her into the downstairs cloakroom before she recovered her furry orange wits. I picked up the blackbird and deposited it on top of the garden fence where it clung unsteadily and continued to demand dinner. Father blackbird continued to hurl abuse at me. Concerned that the young blackbird needed instant sustenance (they burn up energy at a tremendous rate) I dashed back indoors and returned with a can of Whiskas. Several gloopy chunks of Whiskas went into baby blackbird until it stopped trembling. I retreated and father blackbird arrived to pick up his well-fed youngster. I saw a small light-bulb illuminate over father blackbird's head and an evil glint in his beady little eye.

The following day, Sunday, father blackbird went into his dive-bombing routine near the garden fence. After about half an hour of the commotion, I decided to see what was going on. There was Affy, nose to beak with a begging young blackbird, not sure what to do about it and wondering when the shrieking feathery dive-bomber was going to stop so that she had time to think (this generally being a slow process). Fledgling blackbird was scooped up and deposited safely on top of the fence before ginger fluffy cat was scooped up and deposited safely in the kitchen with a bowl of cat biscuits to distract her.

"Cat biscuits?" enquired the ginger juggernaut (at least I'm sure that's what the huffing noise meant) "I'd lined up fresh blackbird, it was nicely fattened up on my food and you swap it for cat biscuits? C'mon, you could at least break out the tuna ."

We compromised on a small portion of Hi-Life tuna flakes, but I had a suspicion it might be setting a dangerous precedent.

Shortly before dinner, father blackbird began shrieking in the back garden, but there was no sign of the fledgling and Affy was staring at the garage with a butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth expression which made me suspect the worst. Then a pathetic little cheep from the garage explained Affy's sudden interest in the garage door. Somehow the youngster had scuttled into the garage, probably when the predator-prey relationship finally dawned on it. Father blackbird was, of course, blaming Affy and hurling abuse at her. Affy wore her most convincing "who me?" expression as she was picked up and bundled into the downstairs cloakroom while the out-of-sight-chirping-thing was freed from the garage. Once again, the youngster was deposited on the fence and plied with gloopy catfood to make up for any missed meals.

Avian appetites sated, Affy was released from her temporary prison at which point I remembered safely storing a sack of Iams in the corner. Left together for a few moments, Affy and the sack of cat biscuits appeared to have merged into a strange hybrid creature with the body of a cat and the head of a sack of cat biscuits.

Luckily I'd taken the next few days as holiday as father blackbird, now firmly convinced of a cause-and-effect relationship involving ginger cats, humans and well-fed youngsters, delivered his offspring to the garden fence the moment he saw the back door open. Fledgling sat there with its mouth agape. Father blackbird sat several fence panels away going "I'll chaperone it, you feed it."

Affy cat, having reached her own conclusion about cause-and-effect situations, dashed into the downstairs cloakroom, sat down with a huffing noise and waited for the noisy feathery things to leave her in peace. For the next week, Affy's response to seeing blackbirds was "I know, go and sit in the cloakroom, leave the birds alone!" Unfortunately for her, the cat food sack had upped sticks and moved into the Hoover cupboard.

I'm pleased to report that father blackbird went on to raise several more broods. The fledgling grew into a female blackbird. Over the next several years, on summer days when we were home and the kitchen door was left open, this female blackbird sometimes flew into the kitchen and helped herself to food from the cats' bowls. Though she might stalk other birds, Affy never lifted a paw against this particular one and watched, with a resigned expression, as it made off with her food.

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