I recently received the following questions about cats, birds and lizards.
Q. I have had pet cats and dogs for years, but just witnessed something I have never seen before. When I set a bag with strawberries on the kitchen floor, my cat walked in, sniffed the bags, then lay down and started rubbing his face all over the plastic box that held the strawberries. Why would a cat go crazy over strawberries as if it were catnip?
A. Having had several cats myself, I long ago decided I will never understand what makes them decide to do what they do. I asked a friend who keeps inside cats about your observation. She said, “Strawberries and mint plants apparently have a chemical profile similar to nepetalactol, the attractant found in catnip. I have seen videos of cats rubbing their faces on strawberry baskets. Something definitely appeals to them.”
Cats are noted for their inexplicable behaviors, but their attraction to catnip and presumably to chemicals inherent in strawberries has a functional basis.
In 2021 researchers from Japan and England published a paper in the journal Science Advances offering an explanation. The organic chemical nepetalactol repels insects, including mosquitoes. In the study, cats that rubbed their faces on catnip were protected from mosquito bites. Knowing that cats have a practical reason for one of their offbeat actions detracts only slightly from my wonderment at their otherwise mysterious ways.
Q. We are enjoying watching two birds build a nest in a tree outside our upstairs window and we admire all their hard work. How will the mother bird get food and water to her baby birds?
A. The answer of how baby birds attain nourishment varies from bird to bird. Most nesting birds around our residential yards (blue jays, cardinals, wrens, etc.) feed babies in the nest before they fledge.
Birds that feed their young in the days following hatching are called altricial. The word comes from a Latin word that means “to nourish.” Altricial birds not only benefit from parental care at birth, they depend on being fed until they can fly and seek their own food.
In many bird species, both the male and female bring bugs, especially caterpillars, to the open-mouthed babies. Hawks, eagles and owls bring larger animals to their young while they are still in the nest. I’m not aware of any bird that brings water to nestlings. The babies obtain water from the food they eat.
Some birds, called precocial, have babies that hit the ground (or water) running within minutes after they hatch. They may follow their mother around while learning how to drill, but they begin feeding themselves as soon as they are born. Precocial birds include chickens, ducks, geese and quail.
Q. A lizard lives between the basement and first floor of my house. My 2-year-old almost had a full-blown panic attack this morning as she came running to tell me about a “monster!” I didn’t know what she was talking about until I encountered the skink in the basement just a moment ago. How can I safely remove this little critter? I have been holding my little girl all day long because she is so afraid of this lizard.
A. The easiest way to remove a skink is to corner it and catch it by hand. The tail will probably break off but will grow back. It might try to bite, but a small one does not hurt.
As far as your little girl goes, I would start showing her pictures of lizards and snakes in a book, explaining that they are a part of the natural world and have no intention of hurting anyone, including her.
Take walks outside and look at insects, spiders, birds and other wild things with her. Sometimes children develop an irrational fear because they have not fully grasped that most animals we encounter mean us no harm and they need to be reassured. Good luck.
Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you have an environmental question or comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.