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Cat vs. Bird: Is it Time to Lock Up Fluffy to Protect Wildlife Diversity?

Cat vs. Bird: Is it Time to Lock Up Fluffy to Protect Wildlife Diversity?

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.

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Cat & Bird photo by Flickr user feverblue / CC BY-SA 2.0

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160 comments

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6:07PM PDT on Sep 18, 2011

I have a garden and 4 cats, yes four of them my cats never attack the birds, it seems my garden birds are more clever than the ones described in that article. Birds can fly, cats cannot so if a cat catches a bird, the said bird is either ill or stupid. The only time when cats have to be kept inside is when the little birds leave their nest (I have about 5 nests in my garden) so, when the little birds are about to fly away from the nest I keep the cats inside untill they can fly very well, and if a little baby bird falls out of the nest or cannot fly very well yet, I put it in a basket and place it in a tree, the bird mum comes and feeds it untill it is strong enough to fly independently. In my garden which is very small there are about 10 different kinds of birds because I do not spray insecticides and other stuff, the result is that there are lots of healthy insects and pesticide free seeds and fruit which are a healthy food for the birds, the conclusion is : it are not cats who endanger the birds but the humans who spray insecticides contaminating the birds food and makes them unhealthy and weak and more accessible to be catched by cats.

12:07PM PDT on Sep 18, 2011

the other ones tell us cats kill less birds than humans. like how wolves kill 1% of livestock and the rest of the deaths are other things.

kitty is innocent! let kitty hunt. but not a human. lock up your human and murder hunters.
woot woot. the true way to have compassion.

2:00PM PDT on Jul 28, 2011

Seems to have missed the last paragraph of my previous post
All of these effects are caused by humans and the cat or even the dog, wolf or fox's effect on smaller critters is minimal by comparison with our's!

1:56PM PDT on Jul 28, 2011

Cats are somewhat like Republicans they are selfish and single minded in their pursuit of their own repugnant goals! However cats are born that way with millions of years of hereditary instinct behind them! Republicans choose to be the way they are and are therefore contributors to the chaos by deliberate contempt of their fellows! The cat on the other hand has no choice as it is hard wired to hunt whether it needs to or not much as many Americans and Republicans do! Proposing using any kind of weapon of force against cats is unfortunately synonymous with US foreign policy of make war in the interest of oil, profit and greed and to hell with the casualties, euphemistically described as collateral damage! Cat guardians should take all precautions to prevent bird and small animal casualties by placing a bell on the cats collar and not "putting the cat out" at night or preferably keeping them indoors full time where they do not become victims of inconsiderate drivers, those toting guns or distributing poison etc. Prevention being to everyone's advantage neighbours, birds small animals and of course the cat. Sadly the cat is often a scapegoat for predation when the greater loss is caused by our profligate lifestyle, intensive factory farming, use of toxic chemicals in many industries from agriculture to mining, loss of wild areas and thus a reduction in bird friendly territory and habitat. All of these effects are caused by humans and the cat or even the dog, wolf or fox's effe

11:19AM PDT on Jul 28, 2011

Cats have great memory, it seems. I have a B-B gun and bird feeders in the yard. When a cat gets shot in the arse with a B-B it doesn't come back, and if it does it hightails it when it hears the slding door open because it knows what is coming! HA! I have no problems with cats, but they are not going after the birds in my yard!

3:14PM PDT on Jul 27, 2011

The only time cats should'nt be outside is when the birds have babies who are about to leave the nest. Otherwise the cats, if they are well fed and not abandoned cannot catch birds who are more clever than one think. I often have the opportunity to observe birds in my yard and my cast, of course observe them too. When the cat comes near the bird it chirps and flies a few branches higher, this can last for several minutes untill the bird gets tired and flies away. In conclusion, if your cats are well fed you can let them out, except if there are baby birds who cannot fly very well yet but this is only for a few days.

6:48PM PDT on Jul 26, 2011

jeeze fining people? i don't agree with that :/ i think its really important for cats to be kept indoors, but at the same time my cat LOVES going outside, i've had two cats, both of which i would have liked to have kept indoors, but they both insisted on going out (my parents let them out by the way) of course, my first darling died, hit by a car at only two years old :'((((((
my point is fining people isnt really fair, i want my cat to be happy, but i obviously dont want him to get hurt in any way :( its hard. and a lot of people cant keep up with the high activity needed to keep an indoor cat in shape, right? :s
i care about the birds and mice he catches, i've saved a few from him! i know the advantages of indoor cats over letting them out, but i just cant seem to keep them in if they want to go out :/
my plan is to get a high walled garden when i get my own house :D kitty proof! no escaping! muwhaha

5:23PM PDT on Jun 16, 2011

The figured used in theis article are based on nothign more than bath sceince and bad math - Having a BIRD consertivory investigate cat behavior is much like having foxes investigate chicken behavior - The number one preditor is HUMANS and it is HUMANS and their urban sprawl, technology, and use of chemicals that endanger song bird populations - Birds are designed by nature to deal with feline predation however they are not designed by nature to deal with electrical lines, air planes and vehicles traveling 70 mph! THINK people it really isn't that hard

4:31PM PDT on Jun 16, 2011

PS... that is NOT a cute picture

4:28PM PDT on Jun 16, 2011

Pet cats should be kept in their owner's home, unless on a leash. They are a nuisance to the neighbors and the wildlife. Simple.

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Beth Buczynski Beth is a freelance writer and editor living in the Rocky Mountain West. So far, Beth has lived in... more
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