A Spotted Towhee Tail Feather Cat Attack Is a Cautionary Tale

By Kate Kaye, Bird Alliance of Oregon Volunteer

This time of year, as migratory birds traverse hundreds of miles, window strikes are an unfortunate yet common occurrence often resulting in injury or death to the winged creatures. But there’s an even more frequent danger that birds encounter all year round: cat attacks.

When a Spotted Towhee was nearly caught by a feline attacker in Northwest Portland in October, the event served as a reminder of the delicate balance between wildlife and domesticated animals. Portland resident Allison Hardin was outside harvesting plums in her small garden when she noticed the bird — a plump sparrow with a white breast and speckled wings — stuck in mesh netting she uses to prevent critters from getting through her fence. Her cat Velvet was there, too, dead set on grabbing the Towhee. But Hardin couldn’t thwart Velvet’s mission easily; both the bird and cat were out of reach on the other side of the fence.

“It was my cat who caught the bird,” said Hardin. Realizing the bird was in danger, she leaped to get around to the other side of the fence, running through neighbors’ yards in an attempt to rescue the bird. At first it appeared as though the Spotted Towhee made an escape, she said, until she heard her son declare, “Mom, Velvet just had a bird in her mouth!”

A subsequent chase after Velvet ensued, this time in the family’s basement where the cat had been spotted. Eventually, the Spotted Towhee was retrieved, and appeared to be alert, though unable to fly. The family put the bird in a box. After a little while, “When we took the lid off the box, he was hopping all around so we felt there was hope for the bird,” said Hardin.

So, the family brought it to the Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center. Like a Boat without a Rudder Spotted Towhees, which can be found year-round in this region of the country, are known for their hop. When they feed on the ground, they are often seen taking a backwards two-footed bounce which helps them uncover seeds and small invertebrates to eat.

In shock but without any fractures or puncture wounds, the Spotted Towhee was in for a lengthy rehab in the Care Center. It turned out its retrices, or large tail feathers, were gone and could take weeks or months to grow back. Tail feathers are extremely important to birds for stability and control, acting as a rudder that steers their direction in flight. Of course, it’s the tail feathers that cats or dogs often pluck out as birds make their escape.

The Spotted Towhee patient did well in rehabilitation, and about a month after intake at Bird Alliance of Oregon, was released back into the neighborhood where it was found. While its tail feathers had not grown back entirely, the bird had attained significant tail regrowth and good maneuverability, warranting release.

How You Can Help Prevent Cat Attacks 

This Spotted Towhee managed to survive a cat attack, but many other birds in the Portland metro region are not so lucky. At Bird Alliance of Oregon, we encourage cat guardians to keep their feline friends safe at home, which not only prevents attacks on bird wildlife, but also minimizes cat exposure to dangers such as poisons, predators, fights with other cats, and cars. And because we know that cats love to soak in the sun and explore the sights and smells of the backyard, we also encourage folks to build their very own catio, an outdoor cat enclosure which gives cats the best of both worlds: access to fresh air and a place to keep them safe from hazards.

And, of course, it keeps the local wildlife safe as well. Learn more about how you can keep cats and wildlife safe through Cats Safe at Home, a campaign done in partnership with Bird Alliance of Oregon, Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, Multnomah County Animal Services and Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter, which addresses root causes of cat overpopulation.

Every year the Wildlife Care Center treats 3,000 injured or orphaned native animals. If you would like to make a donation to support our wildlife rehabilitation work at the Wildlife Care Center, click here.

Kate Kaye is a volunteer at Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center. A veteran tech and data reporter who has appeared on NPR’s On the Media, Weekend Edition Sunday and at events held by Yale Law School and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Kate is also the author of the book, “Campaign ’08: A Turning Point for Digital Media.”