In the modern world, as the pampered domestic cat is provided with wet cat food from pouches or dry cat food from bags, you rarely see them engaging in their own ‘food preparation’ so I’ll describe it here if I may. The point is that domestic cats are in effect scavengers, a behavioural trait which is uncommon in their wild cat ancestor. Cats naturally chase, attack and kill prey and then eat it after preparing it if needs must. But the domestic cat is reduced to being a scavenger without the need to prepare their food.
NOTE: I can’t find a single image or video of domestic or wild cat plucking bird feathers! Shows you how rare it is.
Commercially prepared cat food “lacks the complexity of the ‘kill’ which makes it impossible for the cat to exhibit this specialised aspect of their behaviour.
Immediately after they’ve killed an animal, they go through a routine which looks like they are taking a walk unless they are starving when they dive in promptly. This ‘going for a walk’ routine is a way to unwind after the adrenaline rush of chasing and killing a prey animal. The pause may be important to allow themselves to calm down and to be better able to digest the animal. During this pause, if the prey animal is feigning death, they may escape but it happens rarely.
Preparation for easy swallowing
When a domestic cat is allowed to hunt, they may have to prepare the wild animal for eating or in the words of Dr. Desmond Morris, “convert it for easy swallowing”.
Mice and other small rodents present no difficulties. They are simply eaten “as is” as I am painfully aware with my cat when he brings mice into my house and eats them under my bed in the middle of the night when I am woken by the crunching sound of crushed bones!
My cat eats pretty well everything except perhaps the bile duct. But birds are a different kettle of fish. It depends upon the size as to whether they pluck them first. And the various wild cat species also have different approaches to plucking birds before consuming them.
Small birds are normally eaten in their entirety with the exception of the tail and wing feathers. Blackbirds and thrushes are plucked a little bit before eating.
A cat might stop eating for a while and remove some feathers before restarting. It might repeat this a number of times while feeding.
Bigger birds require a more systematic approach to plucking away the feathers. If a cat is successful at killing a pigeon or something larger it has to pluck before consuming the animal.
To do this they employ the following procedure:
- Hold down the body with their front paws;
- seize a clump of feathers between their teeth;
- pull their head upwards with some force;
- open their mouth and shake their head vigorously from side to side to remove the plumage clinging to their mouth;
- spit out feathers adhering to their mouth;
- make special licking/flicking movements with their tongue to try to clear their mouth of stubbornly attached feathers;
- pause from time to time to lick their flank. This is “reverse grooming” by which I mean the grooming process removes some feathers from their mouth;
- any remnants of feathers are removed before the next plucking action takes place.
The skill and desire to pluck feathers from birds is inherited entirely it appears. It’s in their DNA. They don’t need to be trained to do it. This has been discovered with wild cat species kept in captivity. When they’ve been given chunks of meat as their regular diet and then suddenly provided with a whole bird with feathers, they excitedly start removing the feathers.
In one instance, one wild cat species (we don’t know the species) was so enthusiastic that after they had fully plucked the bird, they turned their attention to grass on which they were sitting and began to pluck that too! “Time and again, it tugged out tufts of grass from the turf and shook them away with the characteristic feline bird-plucking movements until eventually, having exhausted its long-frustrated urge to prepare its food, the cat finally bit into the flesh of the pigeon and began it meal” (Cat World by Dr Desmond Morris).
The natural inherited desire to pluck birds cannot be expressed by a captive cat in a zoo. The desire is frustrated like other activities when held captive in small home ranges.
Old World versus New
Interestingly, it is said that the small wild cat species of the Old World i.e. Africa, Asia and Europe, pluck feathers in a different way to the small or medium-sized cat species of the New World namely the Americas.
The German zoologist Paul Leyhausen discovered that all the Old World species performed a “zigzag movement leading to the full shake of the head, while those from the Americas tugged the feathers out in a long vertical movement, straight up, and only then performed the sideways shake”.
It appears that the small cat species of the old and new worlds belong to 2 different groups but this distinction is not made by today’s experts.
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