Sunday, November 24, 2013

Cats & Birds: A Longtime Conservation Struggle

The impact of free-ranging domestic and feral cats on bird populations has been researched and reported in the media for at least several decades. And, at least as old, are the heated debates between cat defenders and bird conservationists.  One of the most current published studies of cat predation (Loss, S. R., T. Will, and P. P. Marra. 2013. The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 4:1396) estimated bird deaths attributed to cat predation to be in the range of 1.4 to 3.7 billion annually. Feral cats attributed to the majority of bird deaths. 

Recently, while perusing biennial reports of the Vermont State Fish and Game Commissioner, I came across the following article in the 22nd Biennial Report, Fiscal Year 1914, reprinted verbatim below.  The commissioner at the time was John W. Titcomb. He stated:

"The reader of the foregoing will acknowledge that the birds are a very important economic factor in agriculture and that every possible effort should be made to increase their numbers.

"Mr. Edward H. Forbush, state ornithologist of Massachusetts, says that a mature cat in good hunting grounds kills on average fifty birds a year. "If we assume, however, that the average cat on the farm kills but ten birds a year, and that there are two cats on each farm in Massachusetts, we have, in round numbers, seventy thousand cats killing seven hundred thousand birds annually."

"Mr. Forbush has merely counted the destruction caused by cats in Massachusetts. Adding the enormous number of village and city cats, many of which have good opportunity for catching birds and their young , the havoc wrought is appalling.  It therefore behooves every right-minded citizen and his family to keep the family house pet at home and well fed. To a large degree cats may be trained not to kill birds.  Everyone should guard against stray cats which are often deserted by families moving from one locality to another and are obliged to roam the forests and fields to get a living.

"It has been proposed in some states to license cats.  Such a radical step seems undesirable, if every bird lover and those who are interested in the economic value of birds take warning to see that the family "tabby" is not allowed to roam at large.

"Those who are really bird lovers and want to have bird nesting close to the house should try the experiment of dispensing with the family cat for one summer and note the increase in bird life about the garden."

Obviously, measures to reduce the cat predation problem have been discussed at least 100 years. Recommending responsible cat owners confine their pets to indoors rather letting them to free-range is nothing new but nevertheless not accepted as much as it should be. 

Our own house cat, Simone, has never been permitted access to the out of doors, therefore deprived opportunities to prey on birds or worse yet to fall victim to a predator-prey role reversal, i.e. being a meal for a coyote or fisher. Despite not being allowed to pursue her natural killer instinct she seems content to watch birds frequenting the feeders and knowing that her food bowl will be filled on schedule daily. 

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