Recently, we had two customers in the store who are cat lovers. Seeing the cat bib we sell, designed to passively interfere with cats’ hunting, one of them seemed offended that someone would put that on a cat and she remarked, “ Cats kill birds, it’s nature!”
That’s wrong, at least in all the world except North Africa and the Near East. Cats are indigenous there but nowhere else. In North Africa and the Near East birds have been evolving defenses against cat predation since the Pleistocene. Elsewhere though, cats are newcomers, brought by humans; instead of having hundreds of centuries to evolve defenses, birds have had only a few hundred years. Birds in places like North America have not had time to develop defenses against cats’ deadly effective hunting skills.
So, it is not “nature” nor is it “natural” for cats to be killing birds in North America, South America or Europe. Humans interfered with nature when we brought the cats.
And have we brought cats. In the United States alone more than 150 million cats are alive as you read this, their ancestors brought here by humans. More than 82 million are kept as pets and the number of feral cats probably exceeds 70 million. And all of them are killing birds whenever they get the chance.
Here is the grim fact: Cats kill millions of birds every year. Pet cats don’t kill them for food, they kill them because cats are hunters. Their hunting instinct is independent of their urge to eat and they hunt whether they are hungry or not. Feral cats kill many more.
We’ve written in this space before about the well-intentioned efforts of cat lovers to trap, neuter, and return feral cats. (TNR) Now comes yet another piece of scientific evidence that it doesn’t work. Biologists recently studied a feral cat colony in Tucson, Arizona, and discovered that local coyotes were eating them. And, another anecdotal piece of evidence arrived in our in-box: At one feral cat colony in Southern California, coyotes discovered the cats and killed most of them. Then, the coyotes kept coming back to eat the cat food set out by the people maintaining the colony.
We doubt that our customer who thinks that cats are just being true to nature when they kill birds would be as blase if a coyote kills one of their pet cats. But, just as cats hunt birds, coyotes hunt small mammals. And the coyotes are indigenous.
Because this slaughter of birds by cats is human-caused, we ought to do as much as we can to lessen the impact on wild bird populations. Here are some suggestions:
1. Keep your cats indoors. This is the most humane solution, indoor cats lead longer and healthier lives.
2. Hang birdfeeders out in the open and far enough away from trees so that cats can’t hunt them from underneath or inside a tree.
3. If you live where cactus grows, surround the birdfeeding station with cactus.
2. The best recent invention we’ve seen for preventing cats from killing birds is a catbib. Invented by a backyard, bird-feeding, cat lover, the CatBib (a thin neoprene bib) disrupts the cat’s hunting skills, without interfering with any other kitty activities. It acts as a barrier between cat and prey by getting in the way just as the cat strikes out for the bird. Because birds see in color, it also functions as a colorful visual warning to the birds. Birds can see the cat coming. The best part about the catbib is that it doesn’t interfere with the cat’s ability to eat, drink, run, etc. and enjoy being outdoors. Cat owners who have used it report great success. (By the way, bells on cat collars don’t work. Cats can creep along stealthily and hunt without the bell ever ringing. Like we said, they are great hunters.)
And everybody should neuter their pet cats. Over time, that would even help reduce the number of feral cats.
Full Disclosure: Until a few weeks ago, when his time to die finally came, we had shared fifteen years of our life with a cat. Waldo wasn’t much of a hunter in his final years because his eyesight faded and he was content, as an old cat should be, to sleep in warm places. And we had him pretty well trained to stay in the front yard and out of the back yard where the bird feeders are. But he no doubt killed many birds in his younger days and we didn’t always follow our own advice of keeping him indoors. We miss him, but we’ve decided to forego further cats. Responsibility for ameliorating this human-caused slaughter of birds starts at home. Besides, our next door neighbor has upwards of ten cats so, anytime we want to hold a purring cat, we can go to her house.
The latest TNR study, Observation of Coyote-Cat Interactions” by Grubbs and Krausman is in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Mangement.
The number of pet cats in the U.S. comes from “Market research statistics – U.S. pet ownership“. American Veterinary Medical Association. http://www.avma.org/reference/marketstats/ownership.asp. Last visited November 10, 2009.
For more on feral cats see, Mott, Maryann (2004-09-07). “U.S. Faces Growing Feral Cat Problem“. National Geographic News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/09/0907_040907_feralcats.html. Last visited November 10, 2009.
The photo of a feral kitten eating a rabbit is by Jake Berzon and the Egyptian cat mummy photo was taken by E. Michael Smith.