One of the greatest dangers to wild birds worldwide is predation by the domestic cat, Felis catus. This issue has gained more attention recently with the proposed ban on cats in New Zealand. In response to data that New Zealand cats had succeeded in killing off nine native species and endangering 33, economist and environmentalist Gareth Morgan suggested that cats should eventually be eliminated from his country. New Zealand isn’t the only country with a problem, however: in a study of cat predation in the United States, kill rates were found to be two to four times higher than previously thought, with a median estimate of 2.4 billion birds killed each year.
Caleb Parkin’s poem “The Angry Birds,” addresses the threat of the housecat and the willful ignorance of its human owners. Written from the point of view of a bird observing a hunting cat, a sense of dark foreboding hangs over each word:Dusk. The swish of the tear in the door. Silence. The sky a cage of black-blue branches. Breathing. A darkness thickens our feathers, sticks to the points of our beaks. We petrify. By the table of bait, it waits. A first screech flickers life into the street-lights. Then– reflected on narrow green eyes– a manicured lawn of limbs. The baby ape takes in tiger cubs. We watch you through the glass, face alight, twiddling your thumbs. Playing games in the night, with our heads. From up here, we look down on the pastel television-picture within: Kitty returns, is named, tickled under the chin: delicately purrs at an opening tin. And you, unwitting napkin, with blood all over your hunter’s hands.
In this poem, the human is “the baby ape” who has taken in “tiger cubs.” This language emphasizes the ferocity of the cat, and the human’s position as unwitting ally.
The numbers involved from the previously-mentioned study suggest that cats are very likely causing population declines in some species of birds. So why are we surprised that so many birds are being killed? Most likely, this is because cat owners only see a small fraction of their cat’s prey. A recent study by the University of Georgia with National Geographic obtained estimates of domestic cat predation by attaching video cameras to cats in order to investigate the cats’ activities. They found that 44% of the cats they studied killed wildlife. Of these predators, only 23% brought captured prey home, while 49% left prey at the site of capture, and 28% consumed what they caught. These results support that previous studies (and owners!) have been significantly underestimating the effect of cats on native wildlife.
So if even well-fed domestic cats are indicated in the decline of local bird populations, what’s a cat owner to do? Obviously, keeping a cat indoors is the best solution to the problem. If, for whatever reason, you need to allow your cat outdoor access, there are still steps to curb bird predation. Never praise a cat that has caught a bird, since positive reinforcement will only enhance this behavior. Keeping claws trimmed will hinder a cat trying to climb trees or catch wild birds, and a bell on the cat’s collar may warn birds of its approach. Finally, never feed feral or stray cats. The instinct to hunt is independent of hunger, and, simply, a well-fed cat has more energy to catch birds. Report stray cats to a no-kill shelter or humane society. Remember that, technically, cats are an invasive species, and it is within our grasp to control their effect on the environment.
Angier, Natalie. 2013. “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think.” New York Times. Link.
“The Angry Birds.” by Caleb Parkin. Read it here.
Loyd et al. 2013. Quantifying free-roaming domestic cat predation using animal-borne video cameras. Biological conservation 160: 183-189. Link.
Morelle, Rebecca. 2013. “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US.” BBC News. Link.
Mullany, Gerry. 2013. “A Plan to Save New Zealand’s birds: Get Rid of Cats.” International Herald Tribune. Link.
Special thanks to Caleb Parkin for permission to use his work. Please check out his blog, Skylab Stories, for weekly science poems, as well as various other creative writings.