Rufous sided Towhee~credit Wikimedia Commons
Watching the Birds
by Chuck Cover
It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting by the window watching the birds visit the numerous feeders and bird baths. Mary is in the chair next to me reading one of her romance novels. She loves them. She is always walking around the house talking to herself about them. She doesn’t have anyone else to talk to and I don’t really understand her, but I have heard enough words that I think I know how she is feeling. She has that certain look on her face when she talks to herself. In fact, that is about the only time she talks at all. She will sometimes talk to me. She will ask me if I am hungry. Sometimes she will ask me if I can see all the birds outside the window. I don’t know why she asks because about the only thing I do is watch the birds. I could sit by the window all day and just watch them come and go. Most of the time Mary is laid back and calm, but one thing seems to really get to her. That is when Death Panel comes around, stalking the birds. Now, I don’t know what Death Panel’s real name is, but that is what she calls him. She says that he is a self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner of the birds. He is a large gray tabby cat. His owners let him out every day and he comes to our house because we are the only ones in our neighborhood who feed the birds. Mary calls herself and the other good people who feed and water the wild birds, birthers. She means birders but with her lisp, it comes out different. I know what she means.
When Death Panel shows up and stalks the birds, Mary gets mad. When she sees him, if she is not involved in her books, she gets up and yells at him, and bangs on the window. That scares the birds away and scares me, but doesn’t seem to bother Death Panel. I don’t understand why she is yelling and I fear that I have done something wrong. Most of the time, Death Panel sneaks up through the high grass. He moves very slowly, moving a few inches at a time. When he gets close to a feeder, he jumps at the feeding birds. He sometimes misses, but about once a week he catches one. I can see it in his mouth. Then he always looks around. I wonder if he is checking to see if anyone has noticed what he has done. Now, Mary sees him and bangs on the window. She starts jabbering a mile a minute. She is asking me why that cat always comes around here. Why does his owner let him out? Don’t pet owners know that when they don’t take proper care of their pets, there are consequences? Those “wild” cats kill thousands of song birds every year. Mary tells me that cats and dogs that irresponsible owners let run loose are not only a nuisance to neighbors, but are also susceptible to being hit by cars. Sometimes they just disappear. I wanted to answer her but she was just talking, on and on. I had heard this speech before. And a few days ago, I heard her on the phone telling one of her friends that a bunch of the neighbors' dogs that were let out in the evening by their owners got together for some “fun.” That night the leader of the pack decided to chase a miniature burro. It was fun, at first, but then the others in the pack also started chasing the little burro. All the dogs got excited, thought what a great game. Well those dogs ended up mauling the little burro. “How could that happen? These were pet dogs. What are the owners thinking?” Mary exclaimed. “Weren’t those dogs trained? Don’t their owners know what they were doing? The burro never hurt any one of them.”
Mary’s banging on the window chased the birds away. Death Panel looked around, then left the high grass and sniffed around all the feeders and bird bath. He acted like, “no big deal,” like cats often do. I guess nothing bothers him. I’m sure that he’ll be back. With the birds gone, there was no sense staying by the window. I got up, got a snack and took a nap. Nothing like a nap.
It is now dusk. I’m back at the window. The birds are back. There are more than usual. There is a light wind, the tall grass is waving in the breeze. “Look there is a unique bird out there,” says Mary. “It’s a Rufous-sided towhee.”
I look and see him. What a beautiful bird. He is medium size, has a black head, black and white dotted wings and a beautiful reddish-brown or rufous breast. I haven’t ever seen Rufous before. What a beautiful creature!
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Death Panel. He is deep in the tall grass. I see him snuggle down so the birds wouldn’t see him. Mary is back engrossed in her book and has not seen him yet. Death Panel moves a few inches, and then crouches, perfectly still. None of the birds see him. Many of the birds have grown used to the hunter cat, but they were usually wary of him and looked for him. Would Rufous suspect that the cat had him in his sights? Death Panel slowly raises up his head. His eyes just clear the tall grass. Rufous is on the feeder closest to him. The cat slowly slinks back down in the grass. The birds continue to feast. Death Panel inches forward slowly. The slight breeze masks his movements. The birds don’t seem to notice him. He moves closer to Rufous, inching closer. I see the cat tense, his eyes now large saucers of anticipation. He shoots out of his crouch, flying toward Rufous. The birds scatter. Rufous sees the birds scatter and catches the cat’s movement. He starts to move, too late. Death Panel extends his paws as he shoots through the air. Rufous has just started his jump for freedom. A large streak intersects with Death Panel and knocks him to the ground just as he was about to squeeze Rufous between his paws. A huge form of a bird envelopes the cat with its wings. Rufous flies off to safety. The great horned owl carries the cat up in the air. It vanishes as quickly as it appeared. The entire episode takes only a few seconds. Mary startled at the sight of the large owl. She jumped to her feet. She was quick to comment to me, “Did you see that! Well, that’s karma for you. Nature taking care of its own. See, you are lucky. I love you and would never let you out and expose you to all the dangers in the outside world.” Then she started moving toward the kitchen and said, “OK, come on Twitter, here kitty-kitty, are you hungry?”
From “Santa Fe Reporter” December 2009: "As for the "wild card" fiction category, this year's winning authors found many innovative ways to work in the required terms "twitter," "birthers" and "death panel"—who knew Death Panel could work so well as the name of a cat?"
Santa Fe Reporter 2nd place winner