For the Birds Radio Program: Cats

Original Air Date: June 30, 1989

The number one killer of birds in the United States now is probably none other than the domestic cat. (4:06) date confirmed

Audio missing


(Recording of a American Robin

Ogden Nash once wrote, “The trouble with a kitten is THAT/ Eventually it becomes a CAT.” I have my own personal cat, whom I love dearly. She’s as sweet as cats come—gentle as a nighthawk with my children, and soft and warm when she curls up on my lap or snuggles against my legs in bed at night. Yet if this sweet kitty gets outside for five minutes she invariably kills a bird. She was a stray that my family rescued three winters ago—before we let her in, her diet was probably 90% avian—she was specializing on the redpolls at my feeder. Now she has no need for birds to eat—she much prefers Purina Cat Chow—but when she manages to sneak outdoors for a few moments she simply can’t resist knocking at least one bird down for a lark. She always seems a little disappointed when her victim stops quivering—once it’s dead she can no longer play with it.

Cats are killers. Pet cats, even the most gentle ones, have the instinct to kill—we call it cute when their prey is a fluffy ball with a bell inside, but are disturbed when their prey is a bird. Feral cats kill for food. Well-fed pet cats are just as destructive, and far more wasteful because they don’t even eat the birds. When I talk to people who allow their cats outside in the daytime, they usually claim that their cat is too gentle, or too fat, or too lazy, to kill a bird. They believe it’s cruel to keep a cat indoors, and seem to think that if their cat doesn’t lay a dead bird at their feet, the cat hasn’t killed anything. Oddly enough, even people with small children or pregnant women in their families are reluctant to keep their cats indoors, even though cats that kill birds, even if they don’t eat them, are the ones most likely to carry toxoplasmosis, which is especially deadly for unborn and small babies.

A study a few decades ago by Aldo Leopold and Paul Harrington found that the diet of feral and farm cats is 52% small rodents, 35% songbirds, 12% rabbits, and 1% gamebirds, like ducks, quail, and grouse. Studies in Europe indicate that cats take on average one bird a day, whether they are fed or not.

Now Stan Temple, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has been conducting a study to quantify the effects of cats on populations of wild birds, and his preliminary findings are alarming. His data indicates that cats kill 1.2 million birds in Wisconsin every day, in agriculture areas alone. Cats apparently kill as many game birds and waterfowl each year as human hunters do. And Dr. Temple finds a troubling link between the decline of grassland birds and domestic cats. Since 1960, just about every grassland species, from meadowlarks and bobolinks to LeConte’s Sparrows and Dickcissels, has declined significantly–Dr. Temple sees a causal relationship between these declines and predation by cats. Although he has not yet studied the urban habitat specifically, my own observations in my neighborhood indicate that cats take a significant number of birds each summer. The most common victims are robins, brown thrashers, catbirds, doves, and other species that spend much of their time on the ground.

If you have a cat, please keep it indoors, at least during the daytime when birds are active. If you don’t want to restrain it just for some birds, at least do it for yourself, to reduce your chances of getting toxoplasmosis, or for your cat itself—to keep it from contracting feline leukemia and other easily transmissible diseases. If you love your cat, make it a house cat.

(Recording of a Mourning Dove)