I adore kitties. They’re sleek, beautiful, intelligent and still just about as completely wild as they were before humans ever made their acquaintance. Cats are built for agility and speed and have the patience and focus to creep up on and bag any unwitting little creature that might be flitting around in the back garden or under the neighbor’s bird feeder.
Letting a cat roam free is equatable to allowing it back to its wild origins, reuniting feline with nature. It feels good to let free a scampering neurotic kitty that otherwise runs around your house like a bat out of hell even though nothing is there to chase or be chased. But when it comes to the repercussions of letting them outdoors, we might should think twice.
Well, unfortunately, yes, this is true. Which is why the number one directly human-caused threat to birds in the US and Canada is predation by domestic cats, according to a 2014 State of the Birds Report, impacting the biodiversity of ecosystems.
What the shame is, is that these cats are doing what comes naturally to them and birds just aren’t equipped in a world where cats have become their primary predators, they can’t compete against this major predatory threat. Therefore, with the combined impact of tens of millions of domestic and feral cats allowed to roam free in the outdoors, songbirds are declining as a result, to the tune of 2.4 billion birds in the US every year.
“There is a huge environmental price that we are paying every single day that we turn our backs on our native wildlife in favor of protecting non-native predatory cats at all cost while ignoring the inconvenient truth about the mortality they inflict.” -Michael Hutchins, CEO of The Wildlife Society
It’s not a matter of these kitties just maintaining sustenance, either. If a flurry of feathers flashes by, there’s not much you can do to keep that instinctive, coil-spring reaction from activating, resulting in the beheaded body of a tiny songbird left on your front stoop whether the cat was hungry or not, in an offering of love. Sure, that might seem cute, but imagine that multiplied by several billion. Every drop in the bucket counts.
And what you see on your door stoop isn’t always the whole truth, considering that cats won’t necessarily present every kill they make to their unwitting owner. So while you may be seeing one or two birds on your doorstep every couple weeks, that’s not to say the cat isn’t killing many more birds and other wildlife that it just doesn’t care to share with you. In an innovative study conducted by University of Georgia and the National Geographic Society, researchers placed a light, waterproof camera called a Crittercam on a breakaway collar to track cats as they roamed free. Equipped with LED lights, the collars record activity both day and night. The effort released a short video of Molly, a cat that was outfittted with a Crittercam, who successfully captured and killed a mouse, the camera on her neck documenting the entire encounter.
Of the 60 cats rigged up with cameras, 30% captured and killed prey with an average of one kill for every 17 hours spent outside, or 2.1 kills per week. But the study also showed that cats bring home less than one quarter of their kills, meaning it could very well be as many as 8 kills per week conducted by these lovable furballs of ours.
While most of the hype surrounds the number of birds killed at the paws of the domestic feline, there are estimates that millions of reptiles and amphibians and billions of small mammals are depredated by cats annually.
When it comes to threat to species survival, birds and other small wildlife that are geographically isolated and inhabit small ecological niches, such as islands, are at greatest risk. This is because they lack the natural predator defenses since they never historically encountered nor evolved in conjunction with natural mammalian predators, which islands tend to lack. A 2011 review found that, on islands, introduced cats are the primary cause thirty-three up to perhaps as many as sixty-three bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions and are the principal threat to almost 8% of critically endangered animals.
While there are ways to help deter predation by cats on birds and other wildlife, the best way to help is to keep your cat(s) indoors or confined to your property, particularly during the spring season when young birds and wildlife are especially vulnerable. While bell collars have been said to serve as predation deterrents, they aren’t always effective because birds don’t necessarily associate the sound with danger and cats are keen enough to know to stalk carefully to avoid movements that trigger the noise. “It is fascinating that you have this animal that can try to compensate for this bell put round its neck,” says British Trust for Ornithologists’ Dr Tim Harrison.
There’s no question, this is a controversial issue on all fronts. As both a cat and bird lover, I know that cats can survive happily and healthily indoors, avoiding the dangers of life outdoors. Indoor cats are likely to live more than twice as long as outdoor cats, which are constantly at risk of predation by dogs or coyotes, getting hit in traffic, maimed in territorial catfights or contracting disease, an increasingly prevalent one being toxoplasmosis, which can transfer to humans.
One often-cited solution that has yet to be proven is Trap, Neuter, Return, or TNR, where colonies of outdoor cats are targeted for neuter and re-release. But even though they can’t procreate, says Peter Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the cats are still on landscape killing wildlife. A concerted effort to catch enough cats to stop the growth of feral cat colonies would mean the capture of more than 75% of the colony to make any difference, a lofty enterprise. It is an expensive and time-consuming process that could take decades to make a difference while, though highly controversial, euthanasia has been proven to make an effective change over two year’s time.
Ugh, that’s a hard one to stomach. This is where ethics, values, morality, obligation and responsibility to mother earth collide. Keeping kitties indoors seems like the most humane way of keeping the killers at bay, but with the resistance from cat owners, such is the ever-persistant controversy over outdoor cats. vs. birds. What are your thoughts?
Tags: biodiversity, bird kill, birds, cats, conservation, endangered species, felines, invasive species, predators, prey, wildlife conservation