Are Cats Responsible for the Decline of Songbirds?
by Barbara Florio Graham
Spring not only brings flowers, but the return of songbirds. Many of us delight in watching them build their nests, and fill our feeders so we can observe them from our windows.
But a terrible myth persists. Many people claim that cats are the primary threat to the survival of songbirds.
Christie Keith, who writes the Your Whole Pet column for the San Francisco Chronicle, describes how a 1993 article usually called 'the Wisconsin study' is constantly being cited, with an estimate that between 8 and 219 million birds were killed by free-roaming rural cats in that state.
But those figures were far from accurate. Still, despite disclaimers, the study is still being cited in such publications as the New York Times and the Journal of Conservation Biology. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cites the study.
The reason is that people don't want to listen to the complex reasons behind the destruction of habitat and wildlife. Keith quotes several authorities, who say, Things like clearcutting that really contribute to songbird losses aren't even on this continent, let along something people feel they can do anything about. It's much easier to focus on something they feel they can get a handle on, such as rounding up and killing feral cats.
Pulitzer-prize winning science writer Deborah Blum, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin, said, "In science journalism, we spend a lot of time looking at this particular problem. Why do some numbers get this bizarre traction? Why do people believe it, when if they did a little digging they'd find it's not only wrong but in some cases even does harm?"
In fact, what really threatens songbirds are destruction of their habitats, other birds (the big predators who raid nests), tall buildings and other obstacles with mirrored or shiny surfaces, as well as things like pesticides which contaminate their food sources.
Wildlife biologists report that cats are pretty bad at catching birds. They can't fly, they can't climb a tree fast enough, and so, unless they get really lucky, the only birds they tend to catch are on the ground and very young or in poor health.
Janice Biniok (http://www.TheAnimalPen.com) points out that farm cats rarely kill birds. She says that on her working farm, cats keep the rodent population in check, reducing the spread of rodent-borne diseases, damage to crops and stored foods, and prevent the damage rodents cause to equipment.
Deb Eldredge, DVM, (http://coyote-run.net/) says: "One of our barn cats was an incredible hunter - voles, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, rats & weasels. Never once did we see her with a bird. We have had four other barn cats here & never once found them with a bird. Yes, we have bird feeders, so birds are around."
Deb performed an informal study of the kill rate on her farm. 95% were small rodents (mice and moles), 3% rabbits, ground squirrels, rats and other small mammals, and only 2% birds. She wrote, "the bird kills were very easy to tally since cats do not eat feathers, while the rodent kills are probably underestimated because mice are often eaten whole without leaving any evidence of the kill."
The "natural" food for cats is the small rodent. It contains all the elements their diet needs, about 52% of their daily calorie intake from protein, 36% from fat and 12% from carbohydrate. An average rat or mouse contains about 55% protein, 40% fat, and 10% carbohydrate.
Birds, on the other hand, contain very little protein and it's hard to get to through all those feathers and small bones!
I've taught three Simon Teakettles in a row not to chase birds. It begins inside, when they paw at the window and "chitter" when birds are at the feeder. I go over to the cat, pet him, and tell him these are "his" birds. "Nice birdie, don't touch the birdie," etc. It helps that my cats are taught "Don't touch" from the beginning.
Tiki (Simon Teakettle II) loved to go outside, and respected the fence in the back yard. I kept an eye out for him, and early on, when I wasn't sure I could trust him not to climb the fence, I would go out and if I saw him, I'd praise him, and if I didn't see him, I'll call him.
I would hear a tiny "meow" from the daylily foliage, where he was hiding so he could watch the birds without scaring them. Smart kitty!
Terzo (Simon Teakettle III), however, stays indoors. He has a shelf in my office window with a great view of a bird feeder/ That's the safe solution, not just for the birds, but also for the cat!
A shorter version of this article appeared in The West Quebec Post, and also in Log Cabin Chronicles.
BACK TO CAT FACTS