I recently received the following questions about cats, birds and lizards.
Q. I’ve had pet cats and dogs for years, but I just witnessed something I’ve never seen before. When I put a bag with strawberries on the kitchen floor, my cat came in, sniffed the bags, then lay down and started rubbing his face all over the plastic box that had the strawberries in it. . Why would a cat go crazy over strawberries like it was catnip?
A. Having had several cats myself, I decided a long time ago that I would never understand what drives them to do what they do. I asked a friend who keeps cats indoors for your observation. She said: “Strawberries and mint herbs apparently have a similar chemical profile to nepetalactol, the attractant found in catnip. I’ve seen videos of cats rubbing their faces on baskets of strawberries. Something definitely attracts them.
Cats are notorious for their inexplicable behaviors, but their attraction to catnip and presumably the chemicals inherent in strawberries has a functional basis.
In 2021, researchers from Japan and England published an article in the journal Science Advances offering an explanation. The organic chemical nepetalactol repels insects, including mosquitoes. In the study, cats that rubbed their face with catnip were protected from mosquito bites. Knowing that cats have a practical reason for one of their quirky actions only slightly lessens my wonder at their otherwise mysterious ways.
Q. We love watching two birds build a nest in a tree outside our upstairs window and admire all their hard work. How will the mother bird bring food and water to her chicks?
A. The answer to how chicks feed varies from bird to bird. Most of the birds that nest around our residential yards (blue jays, cardinals, wrens, etc.) feed the babies in the nest before they take flight.
Birds that feed their young within days of hatching are called altricial. The word comes from a Latin word meaning “to feed”. Altricial birds not only benefit from parental care at birth, they depend on being fed until they can fly and forage for their own food.
In many species of birds, both male and female bring insects, especially caterpillars, to open-mouthed babies. Hawks, eagles and owls bring larger animals to their young while they are still in the nest. I don’t know of any bird that brings water to the chicks. Babies get water from the food they eat.
Some birds, called precocious, have babies that touch the ground (or water) running within minutes of hatching. They may follow their mother while learning to feed, but they start feeding as soon as they are born. Early birds include chickens, ducks, geese, and quail.
Q. A lizard lives between the basement and the first floor of my house. My 2 year old daughter almost had a real panic attack this morning when she ran up to tell me about a “monster!” I didn’t know what she was talking about until I met the skink in the basement a moment ago. How can I safely remove this little creature? I held my little girl all day because she is so scared of this lizard.
A. The easiest way to remove a skink is to corner it and grab it by hand. The tail will probably detach but grow back. He may try to bite, but a little doesn’t hurt.
As for your little girl, I would start showing her pictures of lizards and snakes in a book, explaining that they are part of the natural world and have no intention of hurting anyone, including her.
Take a walk outside and watch insects, spiders, birds and other wild things with her. Sometimes children develop irrational fear because they haven’t fully understood that most animals we encounter mean us no harm and need reassurance. Good luck.
Whit Gibbons is a professor of zoology and senior biologist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. If you have an environmental question or comment, email [email protected].