Wild Bird Pets and Birds as Threats to Pets

Lazarus, a temporary 'pet' Costa's Hummingbird (photo Prudy Bowers)

Lazarus, a temporary ‘pet’ Costa’s Hummingbird (photo Prudy Bowers)

This month we’re looking at two aspects of birds and pets:  can the wild birds of your yard become familiar enough to be considered ‘pets’, and are any of your real pets, dogs and cats, at risk around SaddleBrooke’s wild birds?

If you provide food for birds, hang hummingbird feeders or set out seed, eventually you will probably recognize individual birds through an errant feather or other distinguishing mark.  Those birds probably recognize you as well, and although they’re never likely to play ‘fetch’, you may well establish some level of relationship.  In the fascinating book, Wesley the Owl, biologist Stacey O’Brien adopted an infant, injured Barn Owl that became her pet for 19 years.  Wesley’s injury prevented his return to the wild, and Stacey’s dedication to the owl included purchasing and providing him with 28,000 mice over his lifetime.  Think about that the next time you shop for dog food.  Other books of interest about wild birds as ‘pets’, include Hummingbirds:  My Winter Guests, Providence of a Sparrow and Quail in My Bed.

Gray Head, an over-wintering Hooded Oriole (photo Bob Bowers)

Gray Head, an over-wintering Hooded Oriole (photo Bob Bowers)

In our case, we have had multiple ‘relationships’ with some of our yard birds.  Gray Head, so-called because of his unique gray head feathers, is a male Hooded Oriole that visits us each September on his southbound migration back to Mexico.  In 2010, he forgot to leave or maybe was worried about reports of violence south of the border.  In any case, he came to our hummingbird feeders daily from September into the following March, when other Hooded Orioles began showing up on their northern migration.  An over-wintering oriole is not unheard of in Arizona, but it is extremely unusual, particularly considering that the winter of 2010-2011 was one of the coldest on record.

Lazarus feeding from a cup of sugar water (photo Prudy Bowers)

Lazarus feeding from a cup of sugar water (photo Prudy Bowers)

One of our all-time favorite wild bird ‘pets’ is Lazarus, a male Costa’s Hummingbird that we found on our back patio one December morning, an apparent victim of a brutally cold night.  As I carried him to a suitable final resting place, I noticed a leg quiver on his still warm body.  We swaddled him in a heated shoe box and watched him gradually return to the living.  Three days later, after hourly feedings of sugar water, Lazarus left my hand and flew away.  That evening, while we sipped wine on our upper patio, a male Costa’s buzzed in and hovered in front of us for a full minute.  A recognizable cockeyed gorget feather proved it was Lazarus.  We weren’t sure if he was thanking us for the sugar water or asking for a slug of Chardonnay, but we’re certain he’s still a regular visitor.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk with Mourning Dove (photo Bob Bowers)

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk with Mourning Dove (photo Bob Bowers)

None of our countless quail or doves has ever become a ‘pet’, but this is probably because they see Gary and James Fennimore as pet-like regulars at our house.  Gary and James Fennimore are a pair of Cooper’s Hawks that view our bird-rich feeders as their own private smorgasbord.  They are particularly fond of plump Mourning Doves, not the brightest bird on the block, and love to drive them into windows.  After retrieving the stunned doves, the Cooper’s take a leisurely meal on our stucco walls or patio furniture.  No wonder the doves refuse to fetch the paper.

Which brings me to the question, are birds a threat to real pets?  Those Cooper’s Hawks and their smaller cousins, the Sharp-shinned Hawks have an appetite for birds, but even small cats and dogs are just too much for them.

Red-tailed Hawk with Chihuahua-sized talons (photo Bob Bowers)

Red-tailed Hawk with Chihuahua-sized talons (photo Bob Bowers)

On the other hand, larger raptors like Red-tailed and Harris’s Hawks and Great Horned Owls are meat-eaters with bigger appetites and talons to match.  All three of these birds will eat mammals as large as rabbits.  Your German Shepard has nothing to fear, but if your Chihuahua weighs less than 10 pounds, I would keep him on a short leash.  And if your pet likes carrots and has a fluffy white tail, you might want to carry him on his daily walk.

(This article originally appeared in the March, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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