With a population more than 100 million strong, the domestic cat is the most prevalent predator species in the United States and a significant threat to wild song bird populations, according to the National Audubon Society. The U.S. is home to nearly a quarter of the worlds cats. One study estimated that in rural Wisconsin alone 1.4 to 2 million cats were killing between 8 million and 219 million birds every year.
But the cat-bird problem is a worldwide one. Many countries with a preference for cat ownership have a problem with cats preying on wild birds. Based on behavior monitoring of pet cats in Britain, one research team estimated that the nation’s 9 million cats probably killed 27 million birds during the spring and summer of 1997. The domestic cat is considered to be one of the major threats to the European Robin.
Figures like these alarm bird fanciers. According to Birdlife International, one in eight bird species worldwide is threatened with extinction and even common species are experiencing population declines. But cats are only one of many threats to birds that includes loss of habitat, competition from invasive species, toxic chemicals in the environment, and climate change.
This weekend, a New York Times reporter explored the issue of pet cats and wild birds in the DC Metro region, interviewing experts who argue that, because house cats are cared for and fed by people, they actually exist in densities that far exceed what nature would allow. The author concluded that we should Give Birds a Break. Lock Up the Cat.
Should Cats Be Kept Indoors?
The American Bird Conservancy argues that it doesn’t matter if a cat is well fed; cats hunt. The group runs a Cats Indoors! campaign to convince cat fanciers to keep their pets inside and even publishes tip sheets for making an indoor cat a happy cat. The National Audubon Society also publishes tips for making your yard safe for wild birds by deterring cats. The first tip: keep your own cat indoors.
Many cat rescues will ask adopting families to commit to keeping their new family member inside, not for the safety of birds but for the safety of the cat. Allowing cats to roam the neighborhood knocks an average of more than 3 years off their life expectancy. Cats on the loose are more at risk for traffic accidents or fatalities, injury from wild animal or other cat encounters, and are more likely to catch fatal diseases like feline leukemia (which is actually a virus). Life in the modern outdoors is so dangerous for cats that the ASPCA estimates that feral cats live only an average of 2 years.
“No parent would let a toddler outside the house to run free in traffic,” Darin Schroeder of the American Bird Conservancy in Washington told the New York Times. “A responsible owner shouldn’t do it with a pet. But cat lovers may not appreciate advice from the ABC because the group has endorsed eradication of feral cats to protect sensitive bird populations.
And What About Feral Cats?
The difficult issue of feral cats killing rare birds made national news a few years ago when one bird-loving Texan decided to exact justice on a neighborhood feral that was preying on a beloved endangered bird species, the Piping Plover. The question of whether the Texan’s actions were appropriate or legal divided a community and hung a jury.
The kill-the-cats solution comes up a lot and not as a lone crusader solution either. There have been numerous government proposals to capture and euthanize, poison, or otherwise eliminate feral cats wherever there are cat-bird problems. Birdlife International credited removal (no details given) of feral cats from Assention Island with enabling a resurgence of once decimated sea bird colonies. (The bird population revival was commemorated with a postage stamp.)
Care2 circulated a petition this summer opposing killing feral cats in favor of more humane capture-relocate or trap-neuter-return programs and one of our animal welfare cause bloggers urged animal lovers to get involved with humane programs to manage feral cat colonies.
Are House Cats Easier to Control?
The New York Times article was focused on the well-fed, well-loved, urban and suburban house cat. The author cites research by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center revealing that in Takoma Park, Maryland, the author’s hometown which is teeming with indoor-outdoor cats, only 10 percent of baby birds survive their first year. This compares to a 55 percent survival rate in nearby Bethesda where either there are fewer cats or cats are more likely to be kept indoors.
Keeping an indoor cat can mean a 20 year commitment of preventing cat escapes and providing enrichment activities to stimulate your cat and prevent him from destroying your furniture. While some cats, even former ferals, adapt to indoor life, others kept indoors from kittenhood may have a strong urge to roam and make regular escape attempts. Consequently, conscientious cat people put bells on collars of free-roaming cats, a strategy both the ABC and Audubon Society consider ineffective.
But how do you address the behavior of millions of pet owners? Unfortunately, the New York Times reporter did not consider whether Montgomery County’s cat nuisance law can be credited for the dearth of cats on Bethesda streets. Under that law, cat owners could be fined $500 per repeat incident for allowing their cat to roam on another resident’s property.