Posts Tagged ‘E.H. Forbush’

Belted Kingfishers

January 28, 2010

Male Belted Kingfisher - Cole

The most popular blog entry on this blog is “Halloween and Barn Owls.” In that post we quote from E.H. Forbush’s book, Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. The book is out-of-print and we don’t have a copy, but we do know that at the end of each section about a bird Forbush included a paragraph or two called “Economic Status.” Forbush was a great lover of birds and it was in that section that he attempted to describe for his reader how good each bird was for the economy of New England.

E.B. White also loved birds and kept a copy of Forbush in his Maine farmhouse. White noted that the “economic status” paragraphs usually consisted of a detailed account of what was in the bird’s stomach, proving that it ate mainly pests. White continues,

Forbush struggles to be strictly impartial . . . but his passion for birds is so great that it is always a losing battle. When he got around to defending the Belted Kingfisher, he just had to put his head down and throw punches in all directions. But his conscience got the best of him finally and he ended up: “The mice and grass-eating insects on which it feeds surely count in its favor and the bird probably deserves protection by law, except about fish hatcheries.” (Italics White’s)

Belted Kingfishers do enjoy fish now and again.

Female Belted Kingfisher - Baird

You can buy the Forbush book, all three volumes of it, for $222.00 here. The quote from E.B. White comes from The Letters of E.B. White, p -312. (Guth, editor)

The photo of the male Belted Kingfisher is by Kevin Cole. The female is by Mike Baird.

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.

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