#10 The outdoor ferals are getting more friendly but swatting me when I put down the food
The outdoor cats are far more trusting of me, they stay near me when I feed them, but also now hiss and sometimes even swat at me when I appear and place the food! I'm OK with that and a finger snap backs them off, but what does that behavior mean? Thanks, Arty
This is very common with ferals on the path to trusting humans. It's just posturing. My take on this is that they feel frustrated that they need to defer to you to get the food. Instinct is telling them to keep the upper-hand with you and not get too friendly. Meanwhile experience is telling them that it's ok to start letting down their guard based on demonstrated non-threatening behavior on your part. If it helps to understand this from our point of view, some researchers say that humans work out conflicting fear issues through our dreams. We evaluate and prioritize dangers and weed out things that we needn't be afraid of for our immediate safety through reactions to them in the safety of our dream world while sleeping. For example, "taking candy from strangers" is a very important fear to have as a child. As we grow older it's not vital to our immediate survival so we discard that from our list of fears. I have no idea how cats' brains process and change their fears as they gradually transition from fear to trust. I have found that if you let it happen organically, it will be permanent from my experience with feral cats. This is why I don't like to force socialization.
I wouldn't snap your finger or scold them if they swat you since that will feed the instinct which is telling them they are crazy to trust this two-legged animal and continue this very dangerous ongoing relationship with you. Just dodge the claws and hold your ground without reacting or looking directly at them. I'd put down the food and sit there by the dish for awhile to encourage them to dare to come closer without their fear kicking in. Maybe one day eating calmly with you sitting right there. You may find yourself getting a leg rub or petting them eventually if you take it slow with no agenda or expectations. Don't engage them directly and try to just "be there" without acting like you care whether they like you. This allows them to relax and explore you and gradually let down their guard day by day. They are dealing with an enormous inner struggle which we can't begin to understand. By you not not participating in it, you allow them to work it out on their own without being distracted by baby talk and eye contact, which they perceive as threatening behavior. I'll bet by next summer they'll be following you around the yard and hanging out on the back porch having beers with you.
Good luck with it! Best, Mike.
PS -Remember that I'm not a trained animal behaviourist. My ideas are completely intuitive and only based on my hands-on experiences. Until we find out a way to talk to animals, it's all pure conjecture on my part.