Like many cat owners who live in the countryside, I have been through a fair amount of heartbreak and high drama involving avian life. For a while, in the months following my move from London to Norfolk in 2001, it seemed as if my hedonistic James Dean style cat Brewer was carefully working his way up the feathery food chain: first a sparrow, then a blackbird, then – to everyone’s amazement, including its own – a pheasant. The peacocks across the road breathed a sigh of relief when, in the summer of 2002, Brewer was fatally hit by a car outside my house, and, just in the nick of time as far as they were concerned, his reign of terror came to an end. The cats I’ve chosen to share my home with since then thankfully tend to prefer rodents to birds, but, as I’ve lived at two houses very close to water, there’s still been a fair amount of incident and a few daredevil rescue operations. I’m thinking mainly of a spectacular SAS roll over a sofa in 2007 to save a duckling in severe peril, and a moorhen chase through the downstairs rooms of my house that in my head – and probably the moorhen’s, too – was soundtracked by the kind of music often used on TV’s The Benny Hill Show during the early 1980s.
Despite these, and a few sadder incidents, I am not convinced that it’s impossible for cats and birds to be friends, or at least live in harmony. In the now legendary “Bird Annoying Cat” YouTube video from 2011, we witness a dove showering a cat with a series of racist and deeply personal taunts, yet the cat remains entirely placid, and refrains from biting its tormentor’s face off, perhaps reasoning that the bird doesn’t really have anything against it, and is just using verbal abuse as a way to exorcise some of the hurt in its own past. This is just one of a rash of Internet videos demonstrating how cats and birds can live in harmony – including this very touching one of a kitten hanging out with a wild crow with, as we are informed, “no known history of humanitarian benevolence”.
Of course, it’s easy to be sceptical, even having watched these videos. The Internet is a big place, and it’s possible to find all kinds of contradictions of what we know about animal life on there. If you searched hard enough on youtube, you’d probably locate a three minute clip of a rhino paying a money spider hard cash for a foot massage. But I have also seen examples in the behaviour of my own cats suggesting that peace and harmony between birds and felines could be a possibility, one day. My mum and dad’s late cat Daisy had a long and passionate love affair with a small feather duster during the late 1990s which I always got the sense was a veiled expression of her closet passion for budgies and parrots. The most intelligent of my current cats, The Bear, has never, to my knowledge, killed or even hurt another living creature – this is a cat who used to happily drink water from the bowl containing my ex’s goldfish, but entirely ignore the fish itself – and has been known to gaze at the birds my other cats have brought into the house with a longing far more suggestive of tenderness than hunger. I once even caught him in my back garden purring sympathetically at an injured crow.
There’s something about The Bear’s mournful, saucerlike eyes and knowing expression that suggests to me that, in one of his previous lives, he could well have been a bird himself: an owl, almost certainly, or, if not, perhaps a scholarly woodpecker, such as Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss. Edward Lear spotted this connection between the more intellectual kind of cats and birds as far back as 1871 in his poem The Owl And The Pussycat, in which said creatures have an elaborate wedding in a far off land, attended by a series of flamboyant celebrities from the animal world, much like Katy Perry and Russell Brand did a few years ago. Of course, this isn’t the whole story: other cats, such as Shipley, the wiry hooligan who has lived with me for the last twelve and a half years, continue to torment and occasionally kill birds. But even his attitude to avian life isn’t as simple as “I hate you, and want to eat you”. I’ve seen him attempt to fly off my balcony in pursuit of a large, cocky raven, yet run away wibbling from one of the medium-sized hens my old nextdoor neighbours owned. The rules and etiquette of interspecies relations between birds and cats are dark, mysterious matters and, perhaps, as mere humans, we should not try too hard to comprehend them.
Tom Cox is the author of seven books, including three about his cats: Under The Paw, Talk To The Tail and the recent top ten Sunday Times bestseller The Good, The Bad And The Furry. He writes a monthly column about his life in the countryside for The Guardian, a column about his cats for Your Cat magazine, a column about golf for Golf International magazine and many book reviews and other pieces for various other newspapers. Follow Tom on Twitter or visit his website.