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Bird kill: the cat’s out of the bag

Friday 4 June 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, whose one and only cat turned out to be a ruthless killing machine, praises the ornithologists who, after years of obfuscation, have finally admitted that pet cats are a major threat to our song bird population

NEITHER my wife nor I were what you would call “cat people.” Both of us had been brought up with dogs since birth and we were on our second joint canine – an English pointer – when the house was violated.

It was late autumn and we found ourselves inundated with mice: field mice, rather than grey house mice, but mice never-the-less and the wife insisted on calling in the pest controller. To her horror – and I must admit that I was not overwhelmed – he discovered that our visitors had set up home in the very settee on which we sat to watch the telly.


Ruthless Killer

That was it. Into the house came Moggy, a black and white eponymous kitten from the RSPCA which soon took over the entire household, first dominating the dog, then training the children to obey his every whim, and reducing my wife to starry-eyed teenager billing and cooing over him.

Outside, however this paragon soon proved to be a very different beast indeed. We knew within weeks that he was a clever hunter when he brought in a winter robin, which caused much distress. But it was not until the following spring until we realised that he was in fact a hard-eyed, sharp clawed serial killer.

That’s when he began dragging in through the letter box the bloodied corpses of baby rabbits, mostly with their heads chewed off. When my son trod in one of those corpses bare-footed on the way to the loo in the middle of the night, his scream almost brought the house down.

These crimes – including, one year, taking a whole family of robins, father, mother and four chicks one at a time – went on until his demise and we never hd another cat. Beguiling creatures that they can be, few doting owners realise just what killers they are. And until now, charity officialdom has always felt it necessary to cover up this unpalatable fact.

Britain’s song birds have been in decline for years and the causes for that issued by such bodies of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have always side-stepped the feline finger of blame. I tried many times to get the RSPB to own up but they always declined, no doubt because tens of thousands of supporters of this marvellous charity are cat owners.

But at last, common sense has prevailed...

The excuses issued in the past have sometimes verged on the ludicrous, like the modern craze for DIY having caused home owners to fill op those cracks under the eaves and in their walls when birds used to nest. More recently, it has been global warming, which seems a little odd as the coldest winter for at least 30 years has undoubtedly killed millions of small birds.

But at last, common sense has prevailed and the British Trust for Ornithology, (BTO) a science based charity, has estimated that domestic cats probably kill 55 million birds in Britain every year. This could be a major contributor to the starling decline in recent years of once prolific house sparrow and starling populations, which have been halved in a matter of a decade or so.

Now this makes good sense because the decline of those two birds has taken place largely in urban areas. And it is only in that time scale that new bye-laws have made dog fouling illegal. Although I have no proof of this, personal observation suggests that dogs are becoming less and less popular amongst townies because of these laws – and their place is being increasingly taken by more and more cats.

Now the BTO is not suggesting a mass cull of cats to preserve our wild birds (a move which would mean suicide for any charity in need of donations) but it does believe that cat owners can take certain simple actions to reduce the hunting activities of their killer pets.

One would be space out bird feeders around the garden so that birds can easily spot a cat stalking between them. Another, for people lucky enough to have birds nesting in their gardens, would be to plant thorny shrubs like pyracanthya below the nesting site.

For more information for cat owners wishing to protect our wild birds, the BTO has produced a free advice brochure. For a copy, telephone 01842 750050, email gbw@bto.org or write to GBW Cat Guide, BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2PU. Then, perhaps, people can enjoy both.

Feedback received on this subject:

The predation of cats is often singled out as the primary reason for the disappearance of song birds, but this is unfair scapegoating for the changes we humans are causing in our own environment.

To give the '55 millon' number some perspective - Dr Ian Newton in his book The Sparrowhawk, the UK's estimated population of 100,000 sparrowhawks will slaughter in excess of 100 million songbirds over a year. This strongly indicates that sparrowhawks are responsible for killing almost DOUBLE the total number of songbirds predated by cats.

In the US, glass windows are estimated to cause 100 to 900+ million deaths per year. Automobiles and trucks are estimated to kill 50 to 100 million. Electric Transmission Lines are estimated to cause up to 174 million, while agricultural Pesticides cause an 67 million bird deaths each year (http://www.currykerlinger.com/birds.htm).

These disruptions to bird numbers are caused by one animal and one animal alone - humans. To suggest that the lack of songbirds in a urban area is due to the presence of cats, and not the clearing of trees, roads, garden pesticides and the lack of appropriate habitat in a suburban environment... is simply ignoring an inconvenient truth.

SavingPetsBlog

Totally agree with SavingPetsBlog.

Over the years I have served a large number of cats, and known many more. Currently four cats live with me, and another four with my partner.

Of those, only one of mine is remotely interested in any form of small game, her total years's catch amounting to perhaps three rodents and the odd unlucky fledgeling that has fallen out of its nest. The other three are far too dignified (and fat) to indulge in such common pursuits as hunting.

One of my partner's cats is a hunter, regularly presenting her with the fruits of her endeavours, but after having been seveely chastised on a couple of occasions for bringing birds, she no longer bothers, confining herself to mice, voles and the occasional rat.

From my experience, I doubt that more than one domestic cat in ten can be bothered to hunt on a regular basis, most are just too lazy, and those that do catch far more rodents - a valuable service - than they do birds.

The lack of songbirds in large urban areas is not due to cats, it is due entirely to destruction of habitat and hence lack of food, and I have not noticed any lack in the country, certainly not round here.

David Walker - Settle

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