Millions of feral, free ranging house cats kill birds by the hundreds of millions every year. In the United States as many as 120 million cats are feral. In addition, many of the 80 million pet cats also roam outdoors. On any given day, about 150 million cats are out there killing songbirds. Everybody, cat lovers and bird lovers, agree that is a bad thing. Cat owners wish their pet cats weren’t so hard on birds, but cats are superb hunters and they hunt whether they need food or not. Even well-fed cats kill birds in huge numbers. Nor do cats distinguish between birds, like House Sparrows and Starlings which are abundant, and Kirtland Warblers, Piping Plovers, and all the other endangered bird species which aren’t.
Humans come to this problem, like so many others, laden with good intentions. It is not a new problem either. Here is the famed ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush, writing in 1916:
Questions regarding the value or inutility of the domestic cat, and problems connected with limiting its more or less unwelcome outdoor activities, are causing much dissension. The discussion has reached an acute stage. Medical men, game protectors and bird lovers call on legislators to enact restrictive laws. Then ardent cat lovers rouse themselves for combat. In the excitement of partisanship many loose and ill-considered statements are made.
The problem is especially acute on islands where feral cats can devastate an ecosystem. Implicated in the extinction of several island bird species, the cats have been removed from some islands and in not particularly humane ways. Some islands, such as Ascension Island, got rid of all of the cats and seabirds are returning to nest. But that may be an isolated success.
One attempt to deal with the problem of feral house cats is known as trap, neuter, and return. (TNR) The theory behind the attempt is simple and beautiful. If we can catch all those feral cats and neuter them, they won’t breed and, eventually, the feral cat population will dwindle to zero.
But we can’t catch 120 million cats. There are too many of them, most are solitary and nocturnal, they are remarkably fecund, they live a long time, and they don’t want to get caught. Even the ones that live in colonies — a colony of feral cats, by the way, is known as a “clowder” — don’t lend themselves to getting caught. There is a reason for the old saying that it is impossible to herd cats.
This quarter’s Bird Digest, the journal of the American Bird Conservancy, reports on two pilot TNR projects, one in Ocean Reef in the Florida Keys and another in Miami. In Ocean Reef, 500 or so cats — down from a peak of 2000 — range freely even after 15 years of a program that includes paid staff, weekly veterinary attendants, and limited public access. At a public park in Miami, the cat population is actually increasing.
In other words, it’s a pipe dream to think that we will ever get control of feral cats this way.
As alternatives, bird lovers suggest that the programs should become trap, neuter, and relocate, moving trapped feral cats to cat sanctuaries where they will be kept indoors and put up for adoption.
That too is a nice idea, but there are 120 million of them! The problem is daunting.
But there are some things that cat owners can do to diminish the avian slaughter. We’ll have more on that in a later post, but one of the simplest and best loved by cats is to make them indoor pets. They live longer, are exposed to less danger, and probably purr more. Here is a brochure about how to make an indoor cat happy.
More information about cats, from birders’ perspectives, is available at the American Bird Conservancy website. They also have produced a nine-minute documentary on feral cats.