Most ponds are at the mercy of predators of one sort or another. In Mike Gannon's experience, however, there are two usual suspects he knows he can ignore -- and a whole class of offenders who can't seem to resist stopping by to feast on fishy treats.
By Mike Gannon
If you’ve been around ponds for any length of time, you know they can attract wildlife of every description. Birds and assorted animals will dart by in the blink of an eye, pausing momentarily to take a cool drink before vanishing almost as quickly as they appeared.
Well, some of them do.
In a few cases, the visits are about more pausing to slake a powerful thirst. As I often tell my clients, ponds are the way good sushi bars should be, open 24 hours a day and always ready with exactly the tasty treats you have in mind – except it’s a pond, access is too easy and the tasty treats are a homeowners’ treasured Koi and other prized family pets.
None of our clients monitor their ponds 24 hours a day, so there’s lots of supposition when it comes to figuring out who’s been raiding the restaurant and what steps should be taken to slow down the rate of attrition – if it’s not already too late for that.
Let’s take a look at the scene of the crime, figure out the likeliest among the possible perpetrators and consider some steps that can be taken to break the cycle of criminality. In the text that follows, I’ll personalize things by discussing my own backyard pond – and start by letting a couple of the usual suspects off the hook.
On many occasions, I’ve watched my pet cat Pippin interact with our pond. Lots of people assume this is a deadly combination of hunter and prey, but I’ve found through years of experience that the concept of cats fishing for their dinner or even for sport in backyard ponds is something approaching urban legend.
Could it happen? Perhaps, but it’s pretty unlikely.
Most people form this opinion of felines’ fondness for fishy snacks by watching their cat (or a friend’s cat) reveal its fascination with a tabletop fish bowl. But it’s typically not about the meal: It’s about playing with a moving object, like a ball of yarn or a catnip mouse. There can be trouble and fish fatalities if the bowl is upended, but it’s a byproduct of play, not a tale of predation.
Cats going after fish in ponds? Not really an issue.
|Although playing with goldfish in tabletop bowls earns them a bad reputation, cats and larger bodies of water don’t typically mix – meaning that this is about as close and involved as a typical feline will ever become when it sees a pond’s fish.|
The typical domestic cat has an aversion to water and getting itself wet. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but a swimming cat is more focused on survival than on the hunt. In fact, if your cat happens to be one that does not hesitate to dive or wade into a garden pond for a bit of fishing, I’d suggest uploading some footage to YouTube and watching it go viral because so many people would have a hard time believing what they’re seeing – especially other cat owners!
My cat Pippin has been around our pond his entire life and makes patrolling it part of his morning routine when he’s let out for the day. He circles the entire pond clockwise, stepping from one rock to the next, stopping at the waterfall for a drink, then completing the circuit before heading off into the neighborhood to make sure all is well in his world.
This is his routine every time he is let out while the pond is open. Pippin certainly acknowledges the fish and will relax at the pond’s edge (as do I, but, alas, far less frequently), watching our Koi glide through the water. Often, I’ve seen him get nose to nose with a Koi when he goes to drink from the pond, and I’ve never seen a felonious gleam in his eye, no preparation for a pounce, nothing aggressive at all.
Moreover, in all my years in the pond business, I have yet to come across a confirmed account of a cat going after pond fish. It’s often a source of speculation, of course, and I’ve consoled pond owners who are absolutely convinced that the neighbor’s cat is to blame but is somehow too clever to get caught in the act.
To me, kitties are off the hook – don’t even need to make bail.
As for bad and unfair reputations where ponds are concerned, you can’t beat raccoons.
Whenever I install a pond, I always have a meeting with my clients to talk about the “facts of life” when it comes to owning a pond, with predators always being a source of some the exchange. I always have one main villain in mind, but my clients almost always turn the discussion to raccoons.
Maybe it’s the fact that their furry black masks make them look like archetypal bank robbers, but I always do what I can to put new pond owners’ minds at ease about these large rodents. They can be up to all sorts of mischief if they’re loose in your yard, but in my experience it seldom has to do with their fishing – a skill they don’t seem to have.
In a previous life, I was a park ranger and, among other duties, had a need to be familiar with common wildlife that people were likely to encounter in the areas I patrolled. So I became familiar with the basic ways of deer, coyotes, foxes, beavers, rabbits, black bears, chipmunks and squirrels as well as those of raccoons – a species I dealt with often.
|Raccoons can get up to all sorts of backyard mischief, mostly with the easy pickings in the trash cans they delight in upending. But while there may be some curiosity and even a bit of salivating when they approach ponds, catching fish is too hard a job for these lazy landlubbers (other than in the tiniest of vessels).|
I confess: I like raccoons, and have done so ever since I was a kid. They’re cute and shy (except when they get as large as good-sized dogs and move in packs that make them seem vaguely threatening). But they’re also basically lazy animals: If a raccoon has the option to work for a meal by trying to catch a fish or stumble into it by knocking over a garbage can, the can will win out every single time.
Moreover, raccoons are not diving or swimming animals. They may work a shoreline and seem ready to leap in to snag a fish, but it doesn’t really happen. Yes, they’ll do business at the water’s edge, catching a crayfish or frog that may be set up too close to shore, but raccoons much prefer trees to water.
And they’re smart, too. In most areas, rural or urban, raccoons are well adapted and know exactly where to go (and when) to get a good, sustaining meal without having to do much more than raiding garbage cans. They’ll eat anything from insects or berries to road kill: Deliberately going after a pond’s fish is, in that context, an utter waste of time and energy.
As with cats, however, there are doubtless exceptions – and I suspect any reports have to do with small, shallow ponds of the sort a do-it-yourselfer picks up for a couple bucks at a home center. With their water so shallow and the space so limited, even a raccoon might be willing to overcome its essential laziness to stop by for a snack.
If raccoons do hit a pond of any description, they leave lots of evidence behind, mainly because they eat at the scene of the crime instead of skulking away to polish off their prey. If it’s really a raccoon, you’ll find the head, tail, and backbone of the fish right by the water – no bones for these guys!
So yes, raccoons are legitimately of concern, but not one worth great consideration so far as ponds are concerned. Indeed, the far bigger hassle with raccoons is cleaning up the debris from the knocked-over garbage cans!
Now at last we come to the real culprits, the masters of pond predation, the arch-consumers of Koi and other hapless fish: big birds.
Late one winter, the activity levels of the Great Blue Herons in my area had slowed sufficiently that I thought it was safe to remove the netting and fishing lines that I place over my pond to keep them at bay. I unplugged the radio that’s always tuned to a talk-radio station; I leave it on whenever I’m away from home so the birds will be put off by human voices. Finally, I put away the plastic heron I use to shake up these territorial creatures.
I was correct in my timing, and no Great Blue Herons showed up to disturb the late-winter peace. But then I saw new threat circling over my pond – one I’d never dealt with before.
Wheeling above me was a strikingly beautiful large bird with pure white feathers, long black legs, a large creamy-yellow beak – as tall as a Great Blue Heron but clearly a different beast. I was mesmerized by its beauty, so much so that all I could do was stare at it from my sunroom after it landed near my pond.
|I had always counted Great Blue Herons (of the same sort as the one seen in the photo at the head of this article) as my pond’s most fearsome predators, but that was before I crossed paths with a Great Egret – huge, patient and much more persistent than the many herons I’ve encountered. Larger-capacity bill, too!|
It didn’t take me long to realize that he wasn’t there for a drink, some bird seed and a brief rest: He wanted sashimi, and my Koi were on the menu. I rushed up and chased him away, but I had never seen such a bird at my pond before, nor had I heard about one from any of my local clients.
He was a Great Egret (Ardea albus), a creature I have seen at large natural ponds and in salt marshes. They forage there for frogs, snakes, insects, fish, crayfish and all sorts of usually small critters. But this Great Egret was being pretty ambitious, hunting at my pond with larger-than-usual prizes in mind.
About five minutes passed before the egret returned. When I chased him off the second time, I noticed that he used the same escape path that the herons always did. Just a few minutes later, he came back again, this time making himself comfortable on my patio. Unbelievable! The nerve of that bird!
This time I got stealthy, grabbed my camera and army-crawled across my sunroom floor to get into position to take some photographs. The Egret walked the edge of my pond with a purpose, stepping right into the water with its back to me like it owned the joint, and began stalking my koi. And the fish obliged by swimming right up to his legs. Again, unbelievable!
I made a racket and the bird flew off. Minutes later, under the arbor on the far side of the pond, the bird reappeared! During numerous heron visits, I’ve learned which areas of the pond trip up the big birds, and the egret was right in the middle of the worst spot it could have chosen.
To the front were aquatic plants and me (behind the glass in the sunroom); to the left, the waterfall and a thick wisteria canopy; and to the right, more wisteria and a good size Japanese maple. This left me just a few feet away from its prime escape route, so I knew it would go in the opposite direction and navigate through the arbor when I jumped out of the sunroom – not the quick getaway the bird might have liked.
It didn’t take long for the egret to get comfortable, which is when I made my appearance and, forcing him to head out through the arbor, moved as quickly as I could to cut him off. I actually made it in time, but I tripped and he flew right over me. I don’t know what I would have done with the bird had I caught it, but I knew my message had been delivered and, sure enough, the Great Egret stayed away – for that day at least.
LEARNING THE DRILL
To make a long story short, experience tells me that most of the problems with pond-fish predation have to do with hungry birds – mostly the big, long-legged ones that can stand in a pond’s shallows and wait for a fish to make a fatal mistake.
This particular egret was definitely a much more persistent and aggressive predator than my herons had ever been. I’ve since learned that it’s a protected species (good thing I tripped!) and that it had been hunted to near extinction to satisfy the feathery needs of fashionable women. (In the 1800s, in fact, Great Egret feathers were worth twice their weight in gold!)
Share Your Stories
The accompanying text refers to my own experience in and around my home base in New Jersey. I’m certain the population of potential pond predators is different in other areas, and I’d be grateful if you would share your own suspects and stories in the comments section below!
Ultimately, the best defense for pond fish – no matter where they’re located – is for the pond’s owner to get to know local birds and other possible predators and take whatever commonly recognized steps are required to make the area less than conducive to a relaxing feast. And stop worrying about the neighbor’s cat or the area’s population of ravenous raccoons: Big birds are almost always the guilty parties – always have been and always will be when left to their nefarious devices.