Nature is comprised of a bunch of animals and plants together, eating one another, keeping one another in a semblance of balance. My yard is not nature. But in it I try to put the right animals and plants together such that they can live as happily and naturally as possible and I can reap food for the family.

Cats are animals that are cuddly for the kids and fulfill a vital role in reducing the damage to our vegetables and fruit trees from a number of other animals.

Here are highlights of how we keep our cats and how they defend our food garden. Let’s start with who they defend against.

Rats and mice

We currently have two cats. Tiger is the gray tabby and Creeper is the black and white one. There have been a few years in the past when we had no cats. During those years without cats, I would find tomatoes chewed and holes in bags of chicken feed in the garage. I saw rats and mice. I saw their droppings nearby. I trapped and trapped.

In the years with cats, I need to do no trapping. I can even leave grain for the chickens spilled on the garage floor for months and it is never touched. The rats and mice are extinct around here. The cats control these pests completely.

Rabbits

They also completely keep rabbits out of our vegetables. In years without cats, I’ve had to cage broccoli and lettuce plants or put a short fence around the perimeter of all of the vegetable beds. Today I have no fence and no cages and still no rabbit damage.

Occasionally a rabbit ventures near my vegetables and Creeper has the bunny for dinner.

Birds

Bird control is nowhere near complete, however. Scrub jays continue to peck some at our cherries and apricots and nectarines and apples, although they do so mostly at the tops of the tree canopies since the cats are around. And while mockingbirds continue to steal some blueberries, they do less of it. They know that the cats might be lying in wait.

Pretty risky for a mockingbird to land in my blueberry bushes. The cats often lie down under them during the spring harvest season.

I haven’t netted the blueberries or any fruit tree for the past few years because the cats keep the bird damage low enough that it’s not worth my time. But I do still net the grapes.

Gophers

Just yesterday I came upon Tiger stalking a gopher as it was poking its head out of a tunnel near a few avocado trees. Watch:

Because the cats don’t catch enough, I still have to trap gophers. But many times I’ve seen a new mound and set a trap only to find that curiously it hasn’t been triggered after a few days. Eventually I remove such traps and surmise that the cats had already caught that one.

Squirrels

I have seen one of our cats with a young squirrel in its mouth, and in general, the squirrels have shown themselves in the yard less during cat years, but I don’t count on the cats to provide much control of squirrels.

Part of the reason for this might be that squirrels are most active during the day, even at noon on a hot summer day, which is when the cats prefer to nap in the shade.​​​​​​​

Keeping the cats safe

Cats do some hunting during both the day and night, and so do their main threat: coyotes.

Our cats are strictly outdoor cats, but they have multiple refuges from the coyotes. There are cat doors into our two garages, and our neighbor constructed a box in one of his oak trees that only the cats can fit into, as they hunt frequently in his yard too.

The right cats

I’ve heard of people with cats and rats. In other words, their cats don’t hunt the rats. I don’t know how this can be, except that they might feed their cats too much or they might have the wrong cats.

Ours come from a feral mother and father in the neighborhood, both of whom we still see around from time to time. They have a hardy pedigree.

Downsides of cats in a food garden

You can’t tell the cats what to prey upon and what not to, unfortunately. So they catch lizards. But if the kids see a cat with a lizard, they can sometimes get the cat to release it and allow it to escape.

And they eat some birds. I’d prefer that they only scare the birds, but that’s not their instinct. We have two cats on a little over an acre, and I’ve seen no apparent reduction in the overall population of birds while the cats are around. It seems that this small number of cats is low enough for the property size.

A couple mornings ago I opened the door to find four rabbit feet and entrails on the mat. It’s not always that I can tell so clearly which animals the cats have caught and eaten there overnight, and I don’t appreciate that they sully our doormat, but I do appreciate that they earn their keep.

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