Isn’t it wonderful to hear the chirping of birds in your garden, watch them feast on the seeds you put in the feeder and see them splashing about in the bath you put out! Many gardeners put a lot of effort—from installing bird feeders and bird baths to planting fruit-bearing plants they like to eat—to attract birds to their little piece of heaven … but it makes no sense to draw birds into your yard only to see them slaughtered by your beloved pussycat! If you want to attract birds, you have to find some way to make sure your cat doesn’t kill them.
This is not just a minor problem, by the way. It’s very, very serious. Did you know that cats kill about 3.7 billion birds annually in North America (yes, billions) and probably just as many in Europe?
Cat predation is now the leading cause in the decline of one in three North American songbirds. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature holds cats specifically responsible for the extinction of 33 species of birds, reptiles and mammals worldwide. And the Audubon Society blames them for the extinction of 11 species of birds in North America alone.
Cats roaming freely in search of birds is therefore not a minor problem, but something more like an ecological disaster … and maybe your kitty is part of the problem.
But It’s the Law of Nature!
True enough, some people argue that it’s only normal for cats to hunt birds, that they’re just following the law of nature. But there’s nothing normal about the huge number of birds cats harvest. The whole balance of nature is totally skewed. The number of cats, especially in urban and suburban areas, is far higher than it would be in any natural environment.
In a typical predator versus prey situation in Africa or Eurasia, where the wildcat ancestor (Felis silvestris) of our domestic tabby (Felis silvestris catus) still roams freely, there is only about one cat per square kilometer, compared to about 10 to 15 cats per square kilometer in the suburbs and up to 800 cats per square kilometer (I’m not exaggerating!) in some cities. If domestic cats were as scarce as wildcats, the damage would be much lower and probably considered quite acceptable.
Moreover, cats are not native to many parts of the world, notably the New World and Australia plus islands everywhere. They were introduced there. There is nothing “natural” about the predation of cats in those regions!
Almost everywhere domestic cats are found, over-predation is severe and it’s birds (and also small mammals) who pay the price for this overabundance of voracious felines.
What Can You Do?
If you own one or more cats, here’s what you can do to protect the birds in your immediate environment.
- Keep Kitty indoors. Don’t try to claim it’s impossible: millions of cat owners do it! In fact, it’s one of the main selling points of cats compared to dogs: you don’t have to let them out! Moreover, “indoor cats” live longer and healthier lives than cats that are let out, so you can’t claim you’re doing them a favor by letting them run free.
- If you feel you have to let pussy out occasionally, do it in the middle of the day. Birds—especially young ones learning to fly—are at their most active about an hour after dawn and about one hour before dusk … when lower light means birds can’t see their predator as clearly.
- Feed your cat well. Even a well-nourished cat will probably still hunt (cats hunt at least as much out of instinct as out of a need for food), but a full belly will calm some cats down and slow their movements.
- Tie it to a cord when you let it out … and not an overly long one. That way, Puss can enjoy the outdoors without being able to reach any birds.
- Put a bell around its neck. Or several bells. Attach it or them to an elastic or quick-release cat collar (one that detaches rapidly if ever the collar becomes stuck). This has been shown to reduce cat predation by about 40%, although some very talented cats learn to hunt without ringing the bell. It’s best to put the bell on when it goes out and to remove it when it comes back in to reduce any habituation.
- Outfit Puss with a bird-warning cat collar, like an Elizabethan collar, but much more colorful. You’ll find them in pet shops or you can order them on-line from the manufacturer Birdsbesafe. The bright colors of the collar make the cat more visible during the day and there is even reflective tape on the margin so it will be effective on a moonlit night too. It’s apparently very efficient, reducing predation by 49% to 87% according to different studies.
- Install a CatBib. It’s made of lightweight neoprene and you attach it to your cat’s collar. It serves as a barrier between Puss and its prey, blocking and deflecting its paw when it tries to strike, thus giving the bird time to get away. Also, it’s brightly colored and bears reflective markings, making the cat’s approach more visible to birds. The manufacturer claims it reduces predation by 81%.
A certain percentage of felines nevertheless manage to hunt successfully even with a bib around their neck. If so, there is a larger model, said to be 98% effective.
It may take a while for your cat to get used to wearing such a bib, but most do so in less than 24 hours.
Curiously, wearing a bib also seems to reduce fighting between cats.
- When you install a bird feeder, put it on a support at least 8 feet (2.5 m) above the ground, as that’s higher than most cats can jump. Also, install a seed catcher under the feeder to trap seeds that would otherwise land on the ground: birds feeding on the ground are in extreme danger of Sudden Cat Death Syndrome (SCuDS).
- Have Pussy neutered. Animal shelters are full of kittens nobody wants and stray cats are legion. Be aware that, while a house cat allowed outdoors tends to kill about 5 and 10 birds a year, stray cats catch between 30 and 50 each year: a total massacre. Do you really want to play a part in supplying more future stray cats to this ecological disaster?
- Finally, if possible, contribute financially to local animal shelters so that they can continue to help control the stray animal population.
That’s a lot to think of before letting your cat out … but if you want to invite birds into your yard next summer, it will certainly be worthwhile put some of them into practice.