Posts Tagged ‘Cats’

Cats, Birds, and Bird Feeding

November 12, 2009

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!”


Egyptian Cat Mummy

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.


Kitten Eating a Rabbit

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.

cat bib-1

Bird-Saving Cat Bib

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.

Waldo-1Full 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. 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, 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.

Trap, Neuter, and Return? (TNR)

September 23, 2009


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.

Ascension Island

Ascension Island

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.

Piping Plovers v. Feral Cats

November 17, 2007

By now you probably have heard about the criminal trial in Galveston, Texas in which the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society was indicted and tried for shooting a stray cat that was about to kill a Piping Plover. pipingplover01.jpgThe jury deadlocked yesterday with 8 members in favor of convicting and 4 against. The District Attorney must now decide whether to try the case again. [1]If convicted, the birder could get up to two years in prison. Texas now outlaws the killing of any cat; but, at the time of the shooting, it was only illegal to kill a cat that belonged to somebody else. The deceased lived under a bridge in Galveston and the maintenance man there fed and named the cat although he had not purchased it; it did not live with him and he did not have it vaccinated.

No one knows how many feral cats there are in the United States. Somewhere between 60 million and 100 million. We do know about how many Piping Plovers are left. About 6,000. In the entire world. They are on the Endangered Species Act. The plovers are native to North America, the cats aren’t. Cats are an exotic species in North America brought and kept here by humans. Plovers are ground nesters and defenseless; having evolved in a North America free of cats.

The case caused an eruption among animal activists who are against killing feral cats. Wait. Before you birders stop reading, we’re going to say a couple of nice things about those people. They make two serious arguments, one of which is undeniably correct. And they profess to have pretty much the same goals as birders: the humane elimination of outdoor cat populations.

For instance, Alley Cats Allies, “. . . is dedicated to advocating for nonlethal methods to reduce outdoor cat populations.” The folks at Feral Cat Network believe:

the safest place for domestic cats is indoors; cats who are lucky enough to have a home should be kept strictly indoors. However, because of the overpopulation crisis, there are not enough available homes. The next best thing for homeless feral domestic cats born outdoors is a managed colony where food, water, shelter, and medical care are consistently provided.

Their first argument is: “Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), the only humane, effective method to reduce their [feral cats] population.” They believe that an adequately funded program to trap all feral cats, neuter them and return them to their homeless outdoors will end feral cat colonies.

Science disagrees. Such programs have been studied in at least two Florida counties and one California program invested $9.5 million in managed cat colonies. Scientific studies demonstrated that less than five percent of feral cats were trapped and neutered. In the meantime, all the rest were doing what cats do, breeding. Cats, especially in warmer climates, breed year around; producing six to eighteen kittens each. For TNR to work, we would have to grab 60 to 100 million cats and neuter them all on the same day.

But feral cat lovers also argue – correctly – that the biggest single cause of the precipitous decline in bird populations isn’t cats, it is humans destroying bird habitats. If you don’t believe them, just look at this range map. piping_plover_na.gifPlovers used to live all over North America.

The Alleycats put the best face on this argument:

Considering the vast scale of human destruction of bird habitat, arguing about “cats-versus-birds” trivializes the critical issues facing bird populations today. Cat lovers and bird lovers can agree: the real danger to birds is humans.

The problem for the cats with this argument is that it overlooks the salient fact that the cats are a part of the human destruction of habitat. If Western Europeans had not colonized North America there would be no cats here in the first place. Not only are the cats killing the birds – and cats kill even when they are not hungry and do not eat their kill – they also kill other prey species which makes it harder for the birds to get enough calories.

Humans created this problem; it is up to us to fix it. Just because cats don’t kill as many birds as humans is no reason not to stop what killing we can. Nor should we overlook the fact that feral cats live short, brutish lives. No one argues that the status quo should continue. The status quo is not humane.

We should also note that feral cat organizations believe with birders that cats are lovely INDOOR pets which should stay indoors. Much of the feral cat population problem can be laid at the doorstep of lazy cat owners who let their cats roam free, do not neuter them and – in some instances – simply abandon them and their kittens.

The question is what can we do? Obviously one shooter in Galveston can’t kill 60 million cats. Especially if he is in jail for killing just one of them.


[1] We wonder: Of all the tourists who travel to Galveston each year and collectively spend millions and millions of dollars in the local economy, how many go to see the birds and how many go to see the feral cats? Perhaps Galveston’s District Attorney has decided not to continue a career in elective office? Why re-prosecute this case? Another hung jury is the most likely outcome. We doubt that local businesses are thrilled about his decision to prosecute this case amid national publicity and ridicule. It is not easy to irritate a birder but once you do, your tourism industry is in trouble.

Roadrunner Training

October 9, 2007

When it comes to training birds and animals it is a fair question to ask, “Who is the trainer and who is the trainee?” As an example we tender some more photographs of Chuck, the neighborhood Greater Roadrunner. Click on the photographs to see larger versions. oct-2007-1-of-7.jpg

In the first photograph you see the view taken from our front door. It takes only a bit of anthropomorphic thought to imagine that Chuck’s stare indicates displeasure. He has arrived for his morning hamburger and it is not on the fence.oct-2007-5-of-7.jpg

In the second photo, well trained, we approach with hamburger in hand. Now Chuck could easily be affecting dispassionate disinterest; however, as you see in photographs three and four, he was ready to eat.

Chuck never eats all the hamburger at once. He returns from time to time during the day for another morsel.oct-2007-7-of-7.jpg He seems confident that it will be there. If there are any left overs at the close of day, we remove them. Cats do skulk about the neighborhood at night and we choose not to attract them. See our post here explaining why.oct-2007-6-of-7.jpg

Cats and Birds

October 6, 2007

Let’s face it: If you love birds and feed them and you love cats and have one, birds are going to die in your yard. You can do things to help, of course. You can put the feeders in one yard and try to keep the cat out of that yard. You can purchase cans of compressed air that hiss when a cat goes by. You can try to keep the cat indoors and you can even go to the extreme of having the cat’s claws removed. However, as you can see from this link even that won’t always work. (Note: The original link to The New Yorker is broken this morning so the link is to a You Tube video which has two cartoons. The cat cartoon, “Dirty Harry” is the second of the cartoon and starts  20 seconds into the video.)

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