The song of a male scarlet robin drifted across my garden at the start of winter and I rushed to the lounge window to have a look at him.
Yes, there he was atop a pin-cushion hakea beyond my lawn, singing his heart out and declaring a winter territory. He might even be trying to attract the attention of a mate.
It was special to hear, and then see, the resplendent robin in his bright-red finery because the species had been missing from my garden all summer and autumn. I suspect the drought had driven them off – I didn’t have to cut my lawn once during the spring and summer months – and a lack of insects in this normally verdant patch had made food difficult to find for the most common of the robin species.
Now the robin was back, but at the same time my hopes of hearing the robin’s soft, descending song into spring were tempered by the arrival of something else that winter’s day – a cat on the prowl.
I had not seen a cat in my immediate neighbourhood for some years, since a neighbour who owned a tabby called Milly moved out.
I love cats, more so than dogs, but I would never own one, simply because they tend to prey on another, greater love of my life – birds.
Seeing the cat on the prowl, and the robin singing in the hakea above it, brought back all the bad experiences I’ve had of cats killing birds, including Milly who once nabbed a black duck chick from the rivulet at the end of my garden. Another neighbour’s cat at that time, sensing I might have an affinity with felines, had brought me a dead tree martin.
Although I might make ironic jokes about cats, they are no laughing matter, domestic or feral. The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife website says that on average a household cat kills 16 mammals, eight birds and eight reptiles a year. Australia-wide feral and domestic cats pose a threat to 35 bird and 26 mammal species.
It is the feral cats which pose the greatest menace, of course. The estimated 1.2million feral cats in Tasmania are said to kill an astonishing 3.6million small mammals, birds and lizards every day.
The domestic moggie, however, can also be a relentless killer, with males especially known to roam over several kilometres. It’s hard to control the bird and animal-killing activities of cats beyond keeping pets in special runs. Confining cats at night doesn’t stop them killing birds by day and such measures as attaching bells to collars makes little difference. Birds do not necessarily associate a ringing bell with danger.
In my garden it is the strident, high-pitched twittering of the new holland honeyeaters which warns of a hunting cat.
Two days after first seeing the robin, I heard the alarm call of the honeyeaters and dashed into the garden to see if the cat had returned. My fears were confirmed. As the cat retreated under the garden fence, I could see the terrified robin clenched in its teeth.