Anne Murray: Controlling your cat helps keep birds singing

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      The world is rich in a great diversity of animals and plants, but many species are disappearing, including some in our own province. To stop this, we need to make clear choices about human behaviour, and make them fast. Among the many factors causing extinction are habitat loss, the influx of alien species, direct kill from harvesting, bycatch, highways, climate change, and pollution. Some of these may seem too daunting to tackle, yet there is one issue where it is easy to make a difference: controlling free-roaming and feral cats.

      Cats kill a huge number of songbirds and small animals every year. It is estimated that they kill hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion birds and animals within North America alone. Cat Crazed, a lighthearted documentary aired earlier this year by the CBC, had an important message: abandoning cats to a feral existence by dropping them off in the countryside is cruel to cats raised as pets, as well as being a very bad idea for native wildlife.

      This is the time of year that young birds and animals are most abundant and at their most vulnerable. Fledgling birds fluttering on low hanging branches as they learn to fly are no challenge for a cat that is able to jump and grab them. While a very few pet cats may not be so inclined, others have been seen to take three or four songbirds in the space of a couple of hours. Feral cats that depend on wildlife for survival are particularly rapacious. Such decimation can soon reduce local wildlife populations.

      The cumulative effect is a sad decline of attractive and interesting species that are a vital part of the planet’s biodiversity, appreciated by many people. The consumption of rodents by free-roaming cats (stray, feral, or owned) also reduces food availability for hawks and owls, such as the rare short-eared owl which was once common in the Lower Mainland. It is not just the native wildlife that suffers. Roaming cats typically live short, traumatic lives, reaching only five years of age, compared to the 17 or more years that indoor cats can enjoy. They are at increased risk of having and transmitting diseases, such as roundworm infestation, and they often die violently.

      Domesticated cats have a long history, dating back to ancient Egyptian times. They make fascinating pets and are a source of joy to a third of North American families. It's been estimated there are 4.5 million domestic cats in Canada. Census data show there are at least 60 million household cats in the U.S., and a further 40 million are considered to be feral. This many cats are bound to have an impact on native wildlife, even if one’s own cat is “not a hunter”.

      Fortunately, there is a good way to avoid your cat attacking wildlife: keep it indoors. Many owners already do this, enjoying the company of cats even in high-rise apartments. Some houses may have an opportunity for a wire-enclosed extension from a ground floor window, where the cats can enjoy fresh air yet remain safe from coyotes and cars, while being unable to hunt garden birds and other creatures. Having contented indoor cats does require a little more time and thought on the owner’s part, but there are innumerable structures and toys that will keep them stimulated and active. A bird feeder within sight of a window will keep cats occupied for hours with no harm to them or the birds. Two cats will also amuse each other. For those who cannot bring themselves to keep their pets indoors, or need more time for them to adjust, ultrasound deterrents geared specifically for cats have been found to work in keeping animals within a limited area. This will not protect wild birds and animals also using the yard, but it will at least limit the impact on adjacent properties.

      The illegal release of ex-pets into the wild and the feeding of feral cats must end. Trap, neuter, and release programs are not a solution to the heavy toll on birds and small animals. Comprehensive municipal programs need to be in place where alien species, such as cats, have taken over an area.

      B.C. Nature, a federation of 50 naturalist clubs around the province, has just passed a resolution urging B.C. municipalities to implement control and restraint ordinances and cat licensing, to protect our native wildlife and to ensure cats receive the care and protection they deserve. B.C. Nature is calling for cats to be confined to their owner’s property or physically restrained when off the premises. They cite the example of cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Toronto, all of which have recognized the importance of responsible pet ownership and enacted requirements for cats.

      Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.

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      22 Comments

      Jen

      Jun 1, 2011 at 6:48pm

      That's very interesting that you blame cats killing rodents for loss of short-eared owl prey since the Ministry of Environment makes it clear the food shortage was caused by loss of habitat:

      Limiting Factors
      Loss of habitat is a key factor in the decline of the Short-eared Owl. Wet meadows and prairies are more productive habitats for rodents than dry areas. Many of the swamps and marshes that provided irrigation for moist habitats were drained when the prairies were converted to agricultural land. This loss of habitat reduced the Short-eared Owl’s food supply, resulting in greater competition, which drives the owl’s population down. Human activities such as hunting and farming can also cause mortality in the ground-dwelling chicks.

      ***************
      Cats are not the cause of declines of birds in the Lower Mainland, according to either B.C. Conservation Data Centre or COSEWIC reports, nor are they implicated in the 20 common North American birds in decline according to Audubon and BirdLife International fact sheets, with the possible exception of the northern pintail -- on island, not continental habitat.

      So what do you know that COSEWIC and the fact sheets don't? You have obviously done your research by relying on the the ABC Cats Indoors! propaganda kit.

      Jen

      Jun 1, 2011 at 6:51pm

      Also, the comment: "While a very few pet cats may not be so inclined, others have been seen to take three or four songbirds in the space of a couple of hours."

      The cat predation studies are fairly clear that 50-60% of pet cats don't hunt, and of the 40% that do, birds form a low percentage of the animals caught.

      Pamela Zevit

      Jun 1, 2011 at 7:58pm

      You have my vote Anne, as a conservation biologist this has been a thorn in my side for a number of years, especially doing work that deals with species already at risk due to habitat loss and other 'human' stressors. I also spent a number of years working in wildlife rehabilitation – seeing the seasonal surge in “cat caught” baby birds and squirrels entering the shelter, many to die due to internal damage or bacterial infections or stress soon after being brought in. It seems though that it will take more than just regulating our cats. What we need is a good social marketing and behaviour management program for us humans. Its more of an attitutidinal issue, we seem to see cats as in need of a wild life to be happy. Or that as pets cats are far more dispensable than dogs. As an example, it is estimated that 60 million stray cats exist in the US and while data is not complete stray dog numbers appear not as high (though the damage to wildlife by feral and free roaming dogs is not insignificant). Perhaps our perception that cats have an independent or aloof nature makes it easier to ignore the problem. I have dealt with these issues with friends, neighbours, even family - all educated caring people who love their cats. Yet I still get the response or belief that their cats need to be outside, that it will be impossible to keep them in and they are somehow infringing on their rights (the cats that is) if they aren't let out. I doesn't seem to matter how much evidence there is or how guilty they feel every time their cat brings in a lovely little chickadee, or cute little shrew either dead or subsequently to die from stress.

      Anne Murray also didn't include the increasing problem of feline pathogens such as distemper and Toxoplasma gondii ("toxoplasmosis"), spreading to and killing wildlife; not to mention the potential problems for babies and children and other pets picking up T. gondii parasites from feral and free ranging cats using your garden as a litter box.

      Then there are all those well meaning folks who believe that it is a good and responsible thing when they take feral cats, spay, neuter and then re-release them. Not to mention the subsequent and continuous investment in maintaining and feeding what become feral cat colonies. It’s delusional to believe that once a cat is well fed it won't hunt or kill. A number of credible studies (including those done here in BC which were shown on "Cat Crazed"), have and continue to be published showing that cats - well fed and cared for as well as feral and free ranging are making their mark on local fauna, sometimes species that are already critically imperiled. Yet cat owners still let kitty out - and then deal with the agony of their beloved pets going missing, prey to coyotes and bobcats or vehicular death. I was one of those people – and I swore if I ever owned a cat again I would walk the talk and do the responsible thing I so espoused – raise an indoor cat whose company I would enjoy for a long, long time!

      If you have made the choice to own a pet (cat or otherwise), you obviously want to enjoy its love and companionship, so explain to me how that is accomplished by barely ever seeing it because it’s outside and prowling the neighbourhood? Just spare me the deluded belief and self-righteous indignation that your pet has a personal right to run wild and free as part of that.

      catfriendly

      Jun 1, 2011 at 8:14pm

      I would really like to see some solid data on this. There are many reasons why birds might be disappearing, destruction of habitat, use of herbicides and pesticides, salmonella outbreaks for instance. We have a cat that enjoys our backyard, goes crazy if just locked up and has never caught anything even though we have several bird feeders in the yard. He walks right by birds, squirrels etc. We have had many cats over the years but only remember one catching a bird, once, when the bird flew into the window and landed, dead, right on top of him. We haven't had a bird die that way since as we keep the blinds partially closed. I wonder how many birds fly into windows and die that way, though. We have many birds in our yard and they are frequently raided by hawks and other creatures, but not by cats. Most of the cats I know stay in their own backyards, or close to them. Our neighbours have cats. They aren't interested in birds and don't leave their yards either. The cats across the street can be seen sunning themselves in the front yard but they don't leave the property and haven't been known to catch birds, or anything for that matter.

      Licensing cats won't make a difference though it could be another cash grab for municipalities. Encouraging people to take care of their cats, to treat them kindly so they don't run away when the kids are rough with them, and educating people so they don't abandon them when they move will help prevent feral cats as will spaying and neutering barn cats and family cats and stopping back yard breeders.

      urban coyote

      Jun 1, 2011 at 9:30pm

      Let your cats play outside!

      TGR

      Jun 1, 2011 at 9:43pm

      The District of Sooke regressed to some extent and changed the animal control bylaw to "ease" the restrictions on cats. This after I got a letter from the Mayor 8 months earlier telling me they had not intention of changing the existing bylaw.
      First of cat owners are contravening the wildlife act by letting their cats harass wildlife.
      I could not get an answer from officials when I asked why I was not permitted to let my dog defficate in a cat owners yard and harass their cat but cats were permitted to perform these acts in my yard. hmmmm.
      When cats get hit by cars they are the first to point fingers at the driver of the vehicle. "My cat is just like a child to us" she says. Who the hell lets a 1 or 2 year old run around all night long throught the neighbours yard and all over the streets. You are just irresponsible owners and nothing else. I don't dislike cats, I have had my own and will let them sit in my lap in your home but I don't want them in my yard.

      The cats are killing our best weed and pest controls, birds and snakes. For those who hate snakes and don't mind them being killed, be informed that some garter snakes eat the Japanese and banana slugs. Since I introduced snakes into my yard I have very few slugs.

      Bird Guy

      Jun 2, 2011 at 8:39am

      IRRESPONSIBLE pet owners in general tend to be bullies by proxy. Letting their dogs run amuck and soil are parks chase wildlife and injure people particularly children. They tend to be a very righteous lot. That hate being held accountable for their actions. That is why they hate the idea of licencing anything . There " Love " of cats only goes as far as they are disposable and do not cost to much. When they get old and loose the cute factor some just dump them. Why control them when they can defecate in the neighbors yard? Yes other human factors kill a lot of birds. Why compound the problem with a lot of feral cats . Cats and dogs are introduced predators Owners should take responsibility for them . And be accountable for them . Best way to do this is to licence the animals . And have the owners care and control them OR have them seized and given to a responsible person or destroyed There is no constitutional right to have a dog or cat . And let that animal impact on the health and welfare of are environment and the public. Your obligation as a pet owner is to control your animal care for it's health and well being and to be responsible for it's actions and dispose of the animal in a caring healthy fashion when that horrible time comes that it has stopped living . I love animals People ??

      miguel

      Jun 2, 2011 at 8:46am

      Just keep your damn cats off the internet is all I ask!
      Miguel

      Steve_W

      Jun 2, 2011 at 8:50am

      Cats have earned the right to roam, by keeping vermin under control
      I live in East Van. During the summer months, my cat brings home one mouse, or rat, per day. My neighbours are very happy about this, because it means less vermin for them to deal with.

      D bird

      Jun 2, 2011 at 9:03am

      Jen, I agree with you that the loss of habitat is the more likely cause of Short-eared Owl decline in the lower mainland, and not competition with cats for small mammal prey.

      But data does indicate that cats impact survival of avian species (for a few examples check out Bridget Stutchbury’s Silence of the Songbirdscheck and google Beckerman et al.: Urban bird declines and the fear of cats). I'm not convinced that they don't have an impact on neotropical migrants that move through our urban areas.

      And think about the math you presented: "...cat predation studies are fairly clear that 50-60% of pet cats don't hunt, and of the 40% that do, birds form a low percentage of the animals caught." Which studies? And what if there are millions of cats (e.g., in densely populated areas in eastern N.A. and around the metro Van region)? Your statistics don't account for absolute numbers of cats. Example: suppose there are 1 million cats in an area, and only 10% of them hunt birds...that's still 100,000 bird-hunting cats.

      I use the Conservation Data Center quite a bit, but its not the most comprehensive resource. Many species that aren't listed might be impacted by cats. It's not enough to argue for outdoor cats just b/c CDC doesn't list them as a problem.

      Anne Murray has not presented propaganda...most of this article articulates what we know about domestic felines and their capacity to impact avian abundance.

      The bottom line is, cats bring enjoyment to their owners, but the cats can impact the enjoyment of nature by the greater public because some cats harass and killing songbirds. So how far is each group willing to impinge on the others enjoyment?

      In the case of songbirds, which have a broad range of functions in ecosystems from Alaska to Chile, I would argue that there is relatively little cost (loss of enjoyment) to a cat owner who has to keep the pets inside. And if that's too much to ask, why have a cat?