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Original Issue


Our family cat, a tom named Butch, looks like a miniature cougar; he has a small head with prominent whiskers, short yellowish-brown fur above, whitish underparts and an extraordinarily long and graceful tail with faint rings on its tip. He arrived last spring at our Ashland, Ore. home to replace a cat named Frankenstein, an old stray that we kept for a year before he suffered a fatal heart attack. I never had to worry much about Frankenstein menacing the birds in our yard, but when Butch came into the family I sensed trouble, and I was right.

We have always put out well-stocked bird feeders in the winter, and during the rest of the year the birds feed on the trees, shrubs and berry patches that closely surround our house. Among our regular visitors are sparrows, woodpeckers, finches, waxwings, warblers, chickadees and both Steller's and scrub jays.

When we let Butch out the front door for the first time, we put a bowl of cat food on the porch, hoping that the memory of it would ensure his return home. It worked, and he settled into a routine: carefully out the door, a long look to either side to check for whatever it is cats worry over when they go through any passageway; two or three sniffs at the food dish; and then a quick dash across the road to the blackberry patch.

From his first visit, Butch considered the blackberry patch his own. After he claimed it, I seldom saw another cat come near it, and when one did it never stayed for long. Butch drove the birds away, too, and spent his time hunting mice and, occasionally, gophers. After successful outings, he would deposit his victims on the front porch, eat from his dish and nap for an hour or two before crossing the road to hunt again. It seemed fitting enough that an aristocrat like Butch should have a well-stocked private hunting preserve, but soon a belligerent trespasser arrived on the scene.

It was a scrub jay. Scrub jays are bold, tough birds, and the one that challenged Butch was exceptionally tenacious. It was longer by two inches than any scrub jay I'd ever seen, and the contrasts among its white throat, blue crown and gray back were exceptionally well defined. Its hard, black beak looked needle sharp; its beady eyes glittered with malice; its high, shrill call was loud and incessant. And it absolutely refused to be driven from the berry patch.

Butch certainly tried, but it was obvious that this old jay was experienced at self-defense. It would hop and flutter among the bushes, let the cat get tantalizingly close and then, just as Butch pounced, lift off quickly and swoop down from behind, pecking Butch on top of the head.

Once Butch came close enough to claw a feather from the jay's tail. In retaliation, the jay drew blood on Butch's head with an especially vicious peck. Each of them gained a measure of respect for the other from this encounter, and for the next few days they attacked and counterattacked with somewhat less enthusiasm.

Eventually the scrub jay discovered Butch's food dish on the porch. It liked cat food, and whenever Butch crossed the road to the berry patch, the bird flew to the porch to steal some. For two days Butch sprinted back and forth in frustration, wondering what to do. Finally realizing a choice had to be made, he decided to protect his food.

Now the scrub jay took the offensive. It would perch on a low branch of a fir tree, just a few feet above where Butch stood guard, and shriek tauntingly at him. Sometimes Butch hissed back, orange eyes glowing with hatred.

Whenever Butch dozed off, the jay would swoop down, peck the cat on the head and sail back to his perch. This would infuriate Butch to such a degree that he'd sprint down the steps and up the tree, whereupon the jay would fly down once again to steal more food.

It seemed hopeless for Butch, and I was on the verge of taking the dish inside and ending the conflict when Butch solved the problem himself. On a sunny morning in mid-June, he pretended to be asleep, and when the jay dived down from the tree, Butch turned and pounced. It happened so fast that I didn't see much. There were hisses and squawks and a blue-brown blur from which a couple of feathers flew. It lasted about a second.

When they came apart the jay flew silently across the road and into the tangle of blackberry bushes, apparently healthy. Butch, looking puzzled, meowed and licked a bloodied paw before curling up and sleeping for a few hours.

Several months have passed. Now Butch and the scrub jay are friends. Apparently their friendship is based on common sense and mutual respect, and as far as I can tell it began to develop after Butch set his trap and the scrub jay managed to escape it. In the morning the jay sits on the front porch and calls for Butch. When we let him out, the two of them cross the road and play a sort of tag among the blackberry bushes. Later, on the porch, Butch curls up near his food, and the jay perches on the rung of a trellis a yard away. Sometimes Butch will stir himself to take a morsel of food. Sometimes the jay will. Once, when the jay disappeared for a week or 10 days, Butch wouldn't eat a thing. Now Butch meows at the jay but never hisses, and the bird calls back at him, but softly.