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The Cat-Bird Conflict

They say that fools step in where angels fear to tread. Well, here I go!

I got another one of those emails where you’re asked to vote for a cause to receive a charitable donation from a major foundation. I honestly hate these things on so many levels. In the first place, it points out how many amazing causes are in desperate need of support. As a volunteer for a couple of non-profits, I really understand that. Who could imagine the lengths we are willing to go to in order to get a bit of financial support! In the second place, these votes typically push conservation efforts to the bottom of the priority list. How can you expect the general public to vote for saving a wetland (known by most as a swamp) when they are looking at pictures of hungry children, dilapidated schools, battered pets and people struggling to overcome illness or disability? And then there’s the cats and the “trap, neuter, release” programs…

I love cats. A lot of my non-birder friends think it’s strange that someone who cares about birds and conservation could love cats. A lot of my birder friends have no problem understanding it. A recent poll on the Wild Bird magazine website showed that 58% of the respondents had at least one cat. Cat loving and wild bird loving are not mutually exclusive! Our cats and birds fill completely different needs for us. However, there’s no question that there is a conflict, and it’s outdoors.

Cat and mouse
Even well-fed cats will hunt. Their skill at killing rodents endeared them to many settlers, but they are proving to be too good at it for native birds and animals.

So how do we resolve this conflict? I will confess that I’ve been a convert since about 1990, and as any of you who have had to deal with people who have stopped smoking or quit some other habit, converts can get a little bit evangelical. I used to let my cats go outdoors. I thought it would be cruel to keep a cat indoors. I never liked them catching wild animals and birds, but my last indoor/outdoor cat was not a hunter. (Yes, I really believe that some cats do not kill birds.) I knew, and used, all of the excuses.

In fact, it wasn’t even a love of birds or nature that prompted me to keep my cats indoors. A neighbor trapped my cat! I couldn’t find Rufus for days. For more than a week, I wandered the neighborhood calling his name. I put up posters. I put ads in the paper. I even checked with highway maintenance to see if they’d found his body. I was heart-broken. For some of us, our pets really are more like furry children. After eight days, a much thinner cat with worn claws and foot pads finally came home. It was shortly after this that I found that 14 cats had gone missing in our neighborhood and that a trap had been found in a yard in the middle of the “no cat zone”. This neighbor didn’t love birds—he loved gardening and hated cats. After, that, I still allowed Rufus outside, but only under supervision. Then I moved. Whew! What a relief it was to be away from such a dreadful neighbor.

At our new house, I kept Rufus on a leash for the first week so that he could get used to his new surroundings. When I finally let him off his leash, he made a bee-line to a neighbor’s yard. I was determined to keep a closer eye on my cat, so I followed, only to find a tin of poison laced with sardines on my new neighbor’s carport floor. Was there no safe place left for a cat? I started hearing horror stories about how people were trapping cats throughout our city and killing them. My blood pressure rose thirty points every time this made the news. The choice was clear. If I loved my cat and wanted to keep him safe, I was going to have to keep him indoors.

After Rufus came Okie and Hobbes–100% indoor cats except on leashes or on a high enough deck that they wouldn’t jump to the ground. And guess what? They were happy, healthy, energetic pets. I was a convert. The number one “must have” for my next home purchase was a deck that the cats could use and not get to the ground. Did I mention that I love cats? Sam and Mushu followed, and have been indoor cats since I got them. They are also healthy and happy. And Mushu, if given a chance, would kill every bird in my yard. Despite my efforts, there is still about one bird a year that meets its end on my deck.

DSC07421
Mushu, a stray that may have become feral, found a home with an elevated deck fills his desire for trips outdoors.

Pre-conversion, I scoffed at the statistics. The numbers put out by bird protection groups like the American Bird Conservancy and their British counterpart seemed greatly inflated, extrapolated from a highly successful hunting cat. Then I heard a statistic that I didn’t have trouble believing—the population estimate of cats in North America. There are over 100 million pet cats on the continent. If they each only caught one bird a year on average, that’s 100 million birds! And that doesn’t even take into consideration the estimated 40 million feral cats which would clearly take a lot more. I had to concede that this was an issue.

DSC07416
A dead bird on the doorstep is usually an indication of a kill by a well-fed cat. 

While some folks still don’t agree that this is a problem, there are lots of people trying to address this issue, in very different ways. Pet owners are becoming more responsible. More and more of us are keeping our cats indoors, or outside in enclosures or on leads. Some cities are implementing bylaws to license and/or neuter cats and generally make owners more responsible. There are bibs that some owners put on their cats which apparently do prevent them from catching birds, but I suspect the cats wearing them are so humiliated that they probably don’t even want to venture out where anyone can see them. I actively encourage outdoor cat owners who won’t keep their pets indoors to at least keep them in until a couple of hours after sunrise and during the twilight hours when birds are most active. I also remind them that when a cat kills a bird in the spring, there’s probably a nest of babies left starving somewhere out in their neighborhood. You’d be surprised how many people hadn’t considered that.

DSCF6400Cat enclosures are becoming more popular and provide a safe–for both cats and wildlife–outdoor environment. This one even has a long run along the top of the fence. Photo provided by Beautiful World Living Environments.

The feral cat population is a whole other matter. The feral cat protectors (who, for the most part, also like birds), killing the free-roaming cats is not an option. I honestly don’t want the cats killed either. Let’s face it, the problem is the people that let the cats go, not with the cats themselves. They are doing what comes naturally, but unfortunately, they are doing it in a part of the world where the resident species can’t naturally expect them. That’s the crux of the issue. An introduced, very efficient predator is going to wipe out a lot of naïve natives.

The cat advocates are not happy that these descendents of pets released by irresponsible owners have to forage in the alleys of the city or in the wild just to survive. Enter trap, neuter, release or TNR. The TNR programs are intended to gradually reduce the feral cat population through natural attrition as the reproductive abilities of the cats are limited by neutering. I can find statistics that shows that these programs are working in some locations and not working in others. The “carrying capacity” of an area (i.e. the number of animals that can survive on the available food resources) is increased by the cat feeding programs that invariably go along with TNR. One un-neutered female can easily make up for any natural attrition in fairly short order. Whatever the success or numbers, cats in the wild will continue to take a toll on birds and small mammals.

DSC02851Trapped, neutered and not released, Boodah, his mother and one other feral cat are now much loved and happy indoor cats sharing a house with two cat and bird loving humans.

For the most part, I believe that the TNR and cat advocacy groups truly hope that every cat will be a wanted pet. The bird advocates want every cat to be a wanted pet and kept under control. There are more shared objectives here than differences, yet we seem to often find ourselves in heated battles. Trap, neuter, release doesn’t protect the birds, but it’s undoubtedly better than not neutering the cats. It may not be reversing the number of feral cats, but it certainly must be slowing the growth of the feral population.

There’s no doubt that people are a major part of the problem when it comes to bird population issues. We’ve found so many highly efficient ways to kill birds—windows, habitat destruction, pesticides, transmission towers, cars, and cats just to name a few. Of all of these, we may have our greatest opportunity to limit the damage by being responsible for our cats.

So I’m throwing it out there. What can we do as bird advocates to work with the cat advocates to achieve our common objectives? Encourage cat licensing/neutering bylaws? Help cat protection agencies find homes for abandoned pets? Take in a feral cat or two?  Support TNR until we find a better solution? Come on, cat/bird lovers! Let’s figure this one out.

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Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale (and yes, that is her real name) is an avid birder and amateur naturalist. A relative late-comer to birding, Ann took up the binoculars and scope in the mid 1990’s and has been making up for lost time since. Ann serves on the board of Rocky Point Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station on the southern tip of Vancouver Island (the place with the Skylarks!) She first volunteered at RPBO in 1997 and over the years has become a licensed passerine, hummingbird and owl bander. Also active with the Victoria Natural History Society, Ann leads local birding field trips and coordinates the Christmas Bird Count for the Victoria circle. Recently she has added coordination of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas to her “administrative birding” activities.
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