Once upon a time, there were some feral cats who would occasionally show up at our door expecting a handout. One of them, the one that stayed in the neighborhood the longest, had a spot of orange on her heel. She was a successful feral, lasting several years, and producing three litters. I personally witnessed her successfully catch and kill a rodent on more than one occasion, and the only time we ever had rats in our house while she was alive, was when we went on vacation for two weeks and thus weren't home to put out treats to lure Orange Heel to make daily visits. Once we came back, she did as well, and the situation was soon sorted out. But, she was never "our" cat, did not want to come into the house, did not let us pick her up. She ate food, and in return also ate a variety of vermin who we preferred not to cohabit with.
Her first and second litters were raised successfully to adulthood, with the exception of Elvis. He was at first called Little Sister, because he appeared to be the smaller sister of the two males. As he finally came of age, though, it became apparent that he was no little sister, and so he was named after the singer most associated with the song "Little Sister". Also, he had, I kid you not, eyeliner. Also, he was a complete mama's boy.
The other members of the litter, as they attained adulthood, went on their separate ways, returning less and less often until they were settled in somewhere else, probably nearby, getting handouts (and the occasional rodent) from some other house. Elvis never left. Orange Heel gave up trying to get him to move out of the metaphorical basement, and while we never fed him (and only fed her if he was not around), he always looked reasonably well fed himself. My guess is that when she hunted successfully, she let him have some, maybe more than half.
Then, she got pregnant with her third litter. By this time she was a quite experienced mom, but she happened to have her third litter during the hottest and driest summer in a decade. No rain, means not much green, and not much green means not many of the small animals that eat leaves. To make matters worse, she had five kittens, more than ever before. Even if Elvis was not taking any of what she hunted, he was probably tagging along at least sometimes, and that was probably making it harder for her to get food. We started to feed her more, but she got skinnier and skinnier, and acted more stressed.
Then, one day, she did not show up at all. Not long after that, the five kittens (who I had up to that point never seen) emerged from hiding in a pile of lumber in a shed in our back yard (up until that point I had thought they were in the backyard of the empty house next door). Not long after that, I discovered her remains, just on the other side of a major roadway that my back yard looks out on. My guess is that she was hit by a car, but she may have tangled with something too big for her, or she may have been less alert and less wary of either threat because she was stressed by trying to feed five kittens in a drought, and possibly also an adult son who never left.
I admit it, for a bit I blamed Elvis, probably unfairly. I eventually decided that, while I had not seen too much evidence of him successfully hunting, he was likely to be the best option we had to scare rodents away, so I began feeding him. Even if it turned out he could not hunt, perhaps he could at least make the outside of the house smell like cat, and that might do the job? On I think the third day after his mother disappeared, he hissed at me, for the first time. It may be that he was blaming me for her disappearance, while I was blaming him. We both got over it, and might have learned to tolerate each other's presence, but Elvis was just not made for life on his own. He turned up dead on our side of the same road, not even a week after his mother disappeared.
Most likely, regardless of the fact that he was now getting food from us, he missed her and tried to track his momma by scent, and this led him to attempt to cross the busy street when he had not the intelligence to safely do so. Perhaps he didn't trust us to keep feeding him. Perhaps he just didn't know what to do without his momma to follow, food or no food. Littermates in a cat litter do not necessarily have the same dad, and so while his brothers all seemed fine, there is some chance that Elvis' dad may have been the long-in-the-tooth alpha feral we called Cow Cat (due to his coloration). If so, then his dad was also his mom's dad, and perhaps for that reason Elvis may not have been fully equipped upstairs. He also did not have the personality to become a pet cat, being far too skittish and suspicious (of anyone or anything except Orange Heel). It may be that Orange Heel somehow knew this, and that is why, although she had successfully hissed and chased all of her other adult offspring off to find their own territory, she never seriously tried to get Elvis to find his own way. Following her may have been the only thing he was equipped to do.
The five kittens have, miraculously, all been adopted away to good homes, at an early enough age that they will no doubt successfully adopt a pet's lifestyle. We are now, for the first time in over a decade (and at least three cat generations), without a feral who makes us a regular stop. On the way back home from dropping off the last kitten, however, we saw two cats (one a tortoiseshell, the other looking like a miniature lynx) arguing over who gets to take over the newly available territory that is our front and back yard. I expect they will help keep the rodents at bay, well enough, even if they both have other houses which they make home base.
The bird feeder is high enough that it was pretty much immune from cat assaults, since it hung from a rope above it, presenting no feline-access. However, it is clear that the number of birds at our birdfeeder has jumped upwards since we became catless territory. That is a consolation; the Tufted Titmouse and finches and cardinals can eat in relative peace, without the anxiety of being watched by predators. For every death, nature presents several births to fill the void that Orange Heel and Elvis have left behind. But, I will miss them both.