I’ve recently been familiarizing myself with the debate about free-roaming cats and their impact on bird populations. Can I just say, this is one scary can of worms to open! No one seems to be able to track numbers of either cats, birds, or human impact on bird populations (including glass buildings, pesticides, wind turbines, etc.) I really don’t love numbers at all, but I know they are necessary. But when I start looking at estimates, and see how much they vary, depending on which camp you’re in, pro bird, or pro cat, the numbers are easily manipulated to suit your needs.
So let me just say this: I love birds. I love cats. I love people. I like buildings… with windows even. My indoor cats also like windows so they can watch the birds. I mention windows because these insidious inventions kill 900+ million birds a year, according to a 20-year study done by Dr. Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College. But no one seems to be sounding the alarm about bird fatalities from windows collisions.
The Vilification of Cats
Cats are an easier target. I don’t know if this is a throwback to the Middle Ages where cats became associated with witches and the devil. Many were killed in an effort to eradicate evil which, ironically, helped to spread the plague, because of the subsequent rat population boom. Even today, comedic villains are never seen stroking a Golden Retriever… it’s always a cat.
Some bird enthusiasts even advocate shooting and poisoning free-roaming cats to preserve bird populations. They feel Trap, Neuter, and Return (TNR) programs do nothing to control cat populations and don’t like people feeding cat colonies to sustain them. They believe even well-fed cats kill birds for sport. Some bird enthusiast don’t mind manipulating facts and pictures to enhance their point. See this post where Peter J. Wolf (affectionately christened as a feral cat nerd) busts a website for bad photoshop manipulation to promote shooting cats.
What kills birds?
I found this report by Curry & Kerlinger, LLC (consultants to the wind power industry on birds and other wildlife issues) to very informative, and reveals that cats are only a small portion of bird death. Cars and trucks kills about the same number as cats, but power lines caused more even more fatalities with an estimated 174 million birds dying per year. Agricultural practices such as pesticide use and cutting hay put fatality estimates at 68 million yearly. Habitat loss, hunting, mining, logging, oil and gas extraction all contribute to bird loss.
More than half the birds fledged yearly do not make it through their first year. This is just a fact of life. Mother nature seems to anticipate this and has made them prolific reproducers. Many die from starvation, drought, and other resource limitations. Because of this, some argue that cats actually help bird populations by culling weaker specimens, and ensuring the healthiest, strongest ones survive to reproduce, much like wolves do for deer and elk populations.
Some bird enthusiasts don’t find that an acceptable idea since they believe cats to be an unnatural predator in the wild. But some would argue that a domesticated cat is an oxymoron. The fact that the so-called domestic cat can adapt to living in the wild, and the fact that they can interbreed with their wild counterparts does hint that they are not that far removed from being wild. Plus, domestication implies sociability, and many would attest that even the kindest cat only accepts you on his own terms.
A recent study suggests that cats were domesticated at the same time people began to settle down and become agriculturally based instead of hunter-gatherers, which was about 10,000 years ago. This makes sense with cats learning to tolerate humans to have access to the grain-eating rodents. It makes one wonder, was it the human or the cat who domesticated the other?
Regardless, both birds and cats are prolific reproducers and have admirable survival skills. But it makes sense to be good stewards to populations humanely in a way that honors each species, including humans. After all, we are all connected and are privileged to share this amazing planet.
To immerse yourself in the debate of cat versus bird enthusiasts, visit Vox Felina.
Bird and cat sharing a sandwich photo by Dylan Ashe.