For the Birds Radio Program: Cats

Original Air Date: Oct. 29, 2003

What can we do about cats killing birds?

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In May, 2003, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission unanimously passed a policy to “protect native wildlife from predation, disease, and other impacts presented by feral and free-ranging cats.” Domestic cats in Florida prey on a huge array of birds including such endangered species as the Florida Scrub-Jay. The American Bird Conservancy and a wide variety of other organizations and agencies worked tirelessly to promote public awareness of the huge damage to bird populations that cats cause. Of course a lot of people feel that since cats are predators, this loss is a natural one, but the truth is, cats are subsidized killers. Humans provide them with food and shelter, and large numbers can survive in an area where the bird population has been depleted. That is completely different from natural predators that must move on or die long before prey species can get that low. Also, many people think if they rescue a bird from a cat and release it, the bird will probably survive. That’s patently false. In the many years I served as a bird rehabilitator, every single bird I ever cared for except for one eventually died from its injuries or from a devastating infection after a cat attack.

But if cat lovers don’t always understand just how lethal cats can be to individual birds and their populations, they do appreciate the loveliness and value of cats. I have two cats myself, both strays that were rescued and deeply appreciate having a home. My cats don’t seem to mind staying inside, and the few cats I’ve had from the time they were kittens seemed perfectly happy indoors, but cats raised in the safety of a home and allowed to play outdoors do grow to expect that freedom. That’s why it’s really important to keep kittens indoors to begin with. Ironically, the people who tend to most strongly romanticize the independence and freedom their cats symbolize seem to be the ones who become most outraged and heartbroken when their cats are killed by a coyote or a Great Horned Owl, refusing to accept the harsh realities of freedom and independence in the natural world. Cats get killed or injured by cars, dogs, and other cats, and also contract feline leukemia and other diseases from other cats. On average, the lives of cats allowed outdoors are significantly shorter than the lives of those kept inside.

Cats that toy with birds are the ones most likely to carry toxoplasmosis, which can be extremely dangerous for unborn and newly born babies. And whether indoors or out, cats like burying their feces in sand, so outdoor cats often use the sandboxes of small children as litter boxes. So keeping cats indoors protects birds, the cats themselves, and us humans.

But what is the best way to deal with feral cats and strays? In Florida, groups opposed to the new policy to protect wildlife from cat predation were concerned that the state’s outdoor cats would be killed. Fortunately for those of use who love cats and birds both, the Commissioners pledged to remove cats from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation lands in the most humane way possible.

The Duluth City Council passed a cat leash ordinance several years ago, but not everyone knows or honors it. A few months ago I was driving along Snively Road when a cat streaked across the road from the ditch on the right side. Fortunately there was no one behind me, so I braked hard and barely missed it. As it cleared my car, I saw that it was carrying a chickadee in its mouth, and I suddenly wished my brakes hadn’t been quite so effective. The death of a cat is a sad thing. The death of a chickadee to a cat who isn’t even hungry, just playing games, is an obscenity.