By Sharon Wootton
YouTube videos tell the story: Kittens are adorable! Cats can pee in the toilet, shop for their favorite treats, play the piano, dance, swing from a trapeze and snowboard.
They also kill billions of birds.
Warning: Statistics can make eyeballs rotate. Similar studies may have contradictory conclusions. Depending on philosophy toward cat and bird interactions, the tendency is to choose results that match what you want to hear.
Saying that …
A 2013 analysis of 90 studies about the feline threat to birds yielded a startling number. Researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the American Bird Conservancy, using a mathematical model, concluded that feral and house cats allowed outdoors kill approximately 2.5 billion birds a year, although it could be considerably less, or considerably more.
Previous estimates were in the 500-million range. Suddenly the apocalyptic numbers became gospel.
According to the report, more birds are killed by cats than from any other cause, including vehicles, pesticides, poisons, wind turbines and deaths by window.
Researchers focused on the 21 most-rigorously researched studies. Remember, though, that studies come with caveats, including different protocols, none of which soften the blow when you’re dealing with extraordinary numbers.
The majority of the birds killed by cats were done in by an estimated 80 million stray or feral cats. I’ve looked at seven randomly selected pro-trap, neuter and release websites and none have mentioned birds.
“Outdoor cats aren’t the killers rumors claim,” Peter J. Wolf wrote on his website, Vox Felina (voxfelina.com). The site is a collection of research notes, news stories and commentary about feral cats and trap-neuter-return efforts.
Wolf owns seven cats and helps manage two small feral cat colonies.
He rips into the bird-kill statistics and the research methods used, summing it up as “junk science.” Wolf writes that the kill numbers are such a huge percentage of the bird population in North America that they would have destroyed the land bird population by now.
Wolf also maintains that, like most predators, cats tend to prey on the young, old, weak or ill, and many would have died anyway. Research published in two scientific journals, he said, found that birds killed by cats are significantly less healthy than birds killed through non-predatory events.
It’s what to do with the feral cats that leads to intense philosophical differences. One solution is to catch and kill (euthanize); the diametrically opposed solution is to trap, neuter and release.
The latter option: trap feral cat, vaccinate, spay and if not adopted, release to the colony. It has supporters because it avoids euthanasia and creates healthier cats that will not reproduce.
Opponents view: It doesn’t significantly reduce the feral cat population, introduces healthier cats who are better able to kill birds, may encourage people to abandon their pets in areas that the proponents use; and in some cases, people feed the feral cats.
There are several harmful things that can happen to outdoors cats but on the issue of birds, the Audubon Society offered the following:
- No matter how well-fed, cats will kill wildlife.
- They do not always hunt because they are hungry; they hunt because of an innate urge to hunt.
- Bells are not a deterrent since wildlife does not recognize the sound of bells as dangerous and most cats will learn to hunt silently, even with bells.
- Because there are such strong feelings about this subject, we’ll hear from readers next, as well as the Community Cat Coalition, a local pro-trap, neuter and release group.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.