Our cat Bob is a soft, corpulent pile of cuteness who seems to think he’s a lap dog, as evidenced by the fact that he wants to spend most of his non-sleeping minutes on our laps getting his belly and neck rubbed.
Cats Are Adorable. They’re Also Killing Billions of Birds and Causing Wildlife Extinctions.
We’re not alone in our adoration of cats. Estimates vary, but there are likely about 84 million “owned” cats in the U.S.. There are also 30-80 million “unowned” cats (strays, feral cats, farm cats, etc.). That’s a lot of cats.
Cats–at least those that live or spend time outdoors–are also unbelievably efficient killers that are having a dramatic impact on wildlife populations.
According to Peter Marra, a conservation biologist and director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., cats kill somewhere between 1 to 4 BILLION (yes, billion with a “b”) birds each year in the United States and have caused a minimum of 33 extinctions. As you might know, birds are absolutely critical to the health of functional ecosystems, serving as pollinators, insect control, fertilizers, and seed distributors, among many other important functions.
We love watching Eastern Kingbirds nest over our back door each spring; the parents dart around our fruit trees and forest edge hunting insects with surgical precision.
We also love watching various species of songbirds nest in our peach trees, and have experienced the joy of seeing their fledglings exit the nest for the first time.
Above video: A gray catbird fledgling prepares to take its first leap into the world after exiting its nest in one of our peach trees.
Unfortunately, these songbirds (aka Passiformes), are not very well adapted to see cats. They’re very good at seeing bright colors, flying insects, etc but a still cat blends right into the background landscape, making these birds especially vulnerable to being killed.
This is a classic example of an introduced invasive species wreaking havoc on a new ecosystem, like kudzu blanketing entire forest edges throughout the southeast.
Considering that 1/3 of the 800 total native bird species in the US are currently endangered, threatened or in significant decline, and cats are by far the biggest killer of birds, we people (especially cat owners) have a responsibility to immediately do two things:
- Acknowledge that there’s a serious problem that’s getting worse; and
- Try to figure out how to quickly mitigate the problem before more native species go extinct.
Take Action: 5 Ways to Stop Your Cat From Killing Birds and Other Wildlife
Based on the information we’ve read and the steps we’ve taken (and found effective) here are five things you can do to stop your cat from killing birds and other wildlife:
1. If at all possible, make your cat(s) an indoors cat.
Our cat Charlie has always been an indoor pet, and is so non-athletic that we’d be shocked if she could kill a moth. She certainly doesn’t pose a threat to wildlife, even if she were to venture outdoors. However, Bob showed up to our house as a dumped outdoor cat and is completely acclimated to outdoor living. There’s virtually no way for us to switch him to an indoor cat at this point. If we could, we would.
2. Spay, neuter, adopt.
There’s absolutely no reason to let your cats make more cats unless you’re a breeder, so please get them spayed or neutered. There are countless numbers of “unowned” kittens and cats at your local shelters who need homes. If you must have a cat, adopt one and raise it as an indoor cat.
3. If you have an outdoor cat, get an in-ground electric fence.
A few years back, Bob’s now-deceased brother Oscar would travel the neighborhood in search of rodents to kill. (Cats also kill as many as 20 billion mammals in the US each year: rabbits, moles, voles, mice, etc.)
One day, Oscar showed up lethargic and covered in blood, which the vet later informed us was the result of two BB gun pellets. As it turns out, in our state, it is legal to shoot other people’s pets who trespass on your property. Between our two mostly outdoor cats’ potential to kill and be killed by bb gun wielding neighbors, coyotes, etc, we decided it was time to put an electric underground fence in our yard to keep them confined. Hey, it’s way cheaper than vet bills.
The fence we used is very easy to install (see Amazon product links below) and only took us a few hours to have up and running. It took us a couple of weeks to train our cats using the small white flags that come with the kit, but after that they knew exactly where the no-go perimeter zones were.
Is it inhumane to deliver a mild shock to a cat to keep it in your yard? Perhaps so. But we think it’s far more humane than allowing our cat to unnecessarily kill hundreds/thousands of other animals in the forests and fields near our house.
*The fence we use & recommend:
- PetSafe In-Ground Fence package - Comes with one adjustable cat collar, enough wire for 1/3 acre, white flags to train your cats on the location of the fence boundaries.
- collars - the fence package comes with one collar, but if you have multiple cats or need replacements, this is what you’ll need
- collar replacement batteries - 4-pack batteries last us 1 year per cat / 2 cats = 8 batteries/year
- surge protector - Our first fence was fried during a lightning storm, so we kicked ourselves for not getting a surge protector from the start. We remedied that when we replaced the fence, and the second one has made it through some serious lightning storms.
4. If you have an outdoor cat (even if it’s inside an electric fence), put Birdbesafe cat collars on them.
Remember what we said up above about songbirds not being able to see cats? Well, Birdbesafe collars take that science into account. Their colorful collars allow birds to easily see your cats from a distance, and escape to safety.
How effective are they? An independent, two-season field study by Dr. Susan Willson at St. Lawrence University published in the Global Ecology and Conservation Journal (GECJ) in 2015 concluded that the Birdbesafe collars reduced bird fatalities by a whopping 87%! If widely adopted by cat owners, these collars could prevent hundreds of millions (perhaps billions?) of bird deaths each year in the US alone.
Apparently, these collars don’t inhibit a cat’s ability to hunt rodents, but they will inhibit their ability to hunt lizards, due to the respective structure of each animal’s eyes.
*Note: When birds are fledging in our yard, we do not let Bob out unsupervised, even though he’s wearing a Birdbesafe collar. Yes, fledglings can see him better, but not being able to fly very well makes them especially vulnerable. Please do the same.
5. If you can’t adopt a stray and make it an indoor cat, take it to an animal shelter.
This is a controversial subject and it’s one of those ethical conundrums where there’s no absolutely perfect scenario. However, we do think there is a clear best answer…
A stray cat is absolutely guaranteed to kill birds and other wildlife, even if it’s got a nice person leaving food outside for it. That’s what cats do. They hunt, regardless of whether they’re hungry. Ideally, you can bring the stray cat to a no-kill shelter. Ideally, the cat then finds a nice home where it can live out its days indoors happily murdering stuffed toys, sofa arms, and socks. However, by getting a stray cat out of your ecosystem, you will save countless numbers of native animals’ lives (birds, lizards, frogs, toads, rabbits, moles, etc) who have a right to exist and a critical role to play in their/our ecosystems. If that doesn’t convince you, consider that you’ll likely even save the cat’s life–as it turns out, the average stray cat lives about two years, whereas an indoor cat will live for 12-18 years.
If you love cats and nature as much as we do, we hope you’ll consider the information in this article and take action. Given how much unnecessary damage is being done to other species as a result of our fondness for felines, we all have a responsibility to make things better.
References & Recommended Reading: