I love birds. They are the only wild creatures who present themselves so readily to us, singing us awake in the morning, building their nests on outcroppings of our own nests, inviting us to imagine a life that defies the gravity that keeps us rooted. They are signals of the wildness we are part of. And they are oh so beautiful.
So you can imagine my dismay when I read about a study in The Journal of Ornithology that concluded that cats were responsible for killing almost half of the 80% of gray catbirds (could the poor things be more ironically named?) killed by various predators in the Washington, DC suburbs. As reported in The New York Times, the American Bird Conservancy estimates that cats kill up to 500 million birds each year. Dr. Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, among others, considers the house cat an invasive species: “They are like gypsy moths and kudzu—they cause major ecological disruption,” he said, assuring that he won’t get much fan mail from cat lovers.
I discovered online a proud owner boasting that his cat had 400 “kills” in one year. That’s more than one a day. Combine this anecdotal report with estimates that cat population in the United States alone ranges from 81 to 90.5 million. Forty million of them roam outdoors. That’s a lot of cats wielding their natural tendency to pounce with sharp claw and fang, snagging not just birds, but other animals such as snakes, mice, chipmunks, frogs and rabbits. By competing with raptors and mammalian predators, cats reduce the availability of prey, thereby upsetting nature’s balance.
“The world’s second most fearsome predator,” according to wildlife writer William Stolzenburg, author of “Where the Wild Things Were: Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators,” cats are responsible for “33 bird extinctions and uncounted decimations.” They are considered the second most serious threat to bird populations, following habitat loss and fragmentation due to human development.
Calm down, cat lovers. He’s referring to feral and outdoor cats, not cute Tabby who sleeps on your forehead, bats around the sock you mistakenly left on the floor and surveys the outside world from the safety of your windowsill.
Most experts agree that cats live better lives indoors.
The average life expectancy for indoor cats is 12 years, and it’s not unusual for some to live to the ripe old cat age of 20. On the other hand, outdoor cats live on average less than five years. Among the many threats to outdoor cats are cars; poisons like pesticides, spoiled food and engine additives; and exposure to infectious diseases and parasites. Many cats get lost and end up in shelters. They transmit diseases such as feline leukemia, rabies and salmonella to native wildlife and humans. If not spayed or neutered, they reproduce, which further contributes to the problem.
So enjoy your safe and healthy cat indoors, curled up in your lap, purring contently while you listen to the birds chirping uneaten outside your window. It’s a happier scenario all around.