Predator or Playmate? | Home & Family

Most living things have a predator, or predators, to their kind. Generally, predators stalk and kill other species as an instinctive survival behavior. It has absolutely nothing to do with moral codes or animal world legalities.

It’s the old story of eat or be eaten.

Big cats — such as lions, leopards, jaguars and tigers — prey on all sorts of smaller mammals like birds or maybe fish of some sort, if they’re handy to catch. Bears also love fish, but are omnivores that can be a bit more adaptive, adding berries and herbaceous plants to their diet, along with worms, grubs and insects.

The most majestic and large of the avian species—birds like eagles, ospreys and herons—thrive on fish dinners, too. But most will also eat other handy meals, like the dead groundhogs and deer carcasses we’ve seen eagles revisit multiple times here at the farm, until only scattered piles of picked-clean bones remain as evidence of their feasts.

More familiar everyday predators around the farm include the likes of coyotes, foxes and raccoons, all of which will readily chase down the meadow bunnies for a rabbit dinner. Of course, they’re equally happy if they can snag a half-grown goose at the ponds or grab one of our chickens or guineas.

And, even among our beloved, well-fed domestic pets, the predator instinct remains alive and gets put to use. Treasured are the farm dogs that root out and chase down groundhogs, those purveyors of potentially equipment-damaging burrows regularly excavated around the farm fields. Just a few days ago, The Grandson sent a text video of Jax, his Red Heeler, eliminating one of our resident woodchucks.

Few birds, in their instinctively protective minds, relish tangling with the full-grown barn cats that populate most farms. In fact, I’ve learned that if I want to find out where the birds are around the meadow, a quick walk with a feline companion generally has the mockingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and other meadow and woodlot feathered residents angrily announcing their whereabouts . Along with their affinity for mice and rats, cats have an instinctive desire to chase and catch birds.

So, as our guinea keets have grown rapidly, now feathered out into their adult plumage, I’ve been extra careful to keep watch as I move them from overnights in their crate in the basement to their days in a wire pen in the yard. Most of our cats simply ignore them, having grown up in the company of our guinea flocks. But the two part-time house cats, raised inside over the winter after being orphaned as kittens, are absolutely fascinated with these feathered additions to the farm critter family.

When the guinea keets were first moved out into their small, wire-enclosed run, Cuddles (Holstein black-and-white cat) and Boots (black with white feet, bib and face blaze) spent most of their time on top of, or pressed right up against, the run’s wire. It wasn’t unusual for one of them to try to poke a paw through the wire, although never far enough to do more than pester the growing birds.

Last week, I dragged a larger wire pen from the barn into the backyard, to give the now half-grown keets more space. Connecting the dog crate in which they spend their nights to the larger wire enclosure, with a bigger door opening, took some minor engineering A sturdy plastic tarp and bungee cords for tying it down solved that dilemma.

At least it was supposed to.

“I don’t think Boots wants to catch the guineas; I think he just wants to hang out with them,” announced The Grandson a morning or two later, handing me his phone. On it was a photo he had just snapped of Boots, stretched out in the entrance between the birds’ crate and the wire pen, just watching the keets pecking around the grass.

I quickly removed the cat, and refastened the section of tarp that had blown loose. Later that day, I stepped back out into the yard, only this time to find Boots sprawled on the grass of the wire pen, with the keets huddling inside the crate.

Obviously, if this gentle, but endlessly playful, cat had intended to do his feathered friends any harm, he’d had ample chances. Luckily, with the keets now half-grown, they’d be a handful — or pawful — for a cat.

We’ve stopped worrying overly much about the danger of felines intent on being guinea predators. There seems to be more interest in simply being companions.

Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for the coyotes, foxes, hawks and raccoons. Maybe I can hire the groundhog that continues to haunt the lower yard (until Jax gets it) to serve as a watch-hog.

And the predator traps shall remain in a handy spot as extra, fowl-safe insurance.

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.

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