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Have cats put sparrows and starlings on the Red List?
Friday, 18 October, 2002

John Sheard discusses the reasons why two of Britain's most common birds have been "red listed" and asks how much blame lies with the domestic moggy

IF YOU had told me this 30 years ago, I would have laughed: the house sparrow and the starling on the "red list" of birds causing "high conservation concern" - what a load of nonsense.

There are millions of the blighters and in some areas, they can be a downright nuisance - why, you are even allowed to shoot then if they become a pest, and that can be said of very few British wild birds.

   

 Is moggy to blame?

Well, I would have been wrong. The British Trust for Ornithology this week placed these humble commoners on the red list along with such aristocrats as the bittern, the hen harrier and the capercaillie because it is estimated that in those thirty years, their numbers have fallen by a staggering 20 million.

And no one quite knows why.

The reason for that is that there is a huge gap in our knowledge, particularly about the house sparrow. It was considered so ubiquitous that ornithologists were told not to bother "ringing" them, the classic method of keeping track of numbers, for several decades.

Thankfully, and hopefully not too late, attitudes have now changed and these two birds are the subject of intense study to find out what is going wrong because, at long last, people in higher places - in this case, the Government - have come to realise that bird populations are a very effective measure of the relative health or sickness of the environment.

To this end, the BTO and a consortium of interested bodies has just finished a preliminary survey for the Department of the Environment and has come up with some interesting trends which need further investigation.

Sparrows are disappearing fastest in urban areas because of a huge increase in the number of nestlings and chicks which fail to survive their first year. Starlings, which are most heavily concentrated in South East England, also run a very high risk of dying in their first year.

Now these are preliminary findings, as I said, and so far, the scientists are treading very warily around a subject which has been bubbling away under the surface for some years now and which, if it ever bursts through the surface, could cause a mega-eruption in this animal loving nation of ours.

For there are many observers, including me, who believe that the biggest threat to our wild birds is Moggy, the domestic cat, which millions of owners refuse to believe is a relentless, clever and merciless killer.

The last estimate I saw of British cat numbers, and this was some years ago, was about three million. That was before stricter pavement fouling laws made dogs in towns an anti-social liability, persuading more pet-lovers to go feline. On top of that, the fall off in marriage and the surge in divorce means that many more Brits are living alone - and a cat is seen as an ideal companion by many lonely people.

I'd lay odds that there are many millions more moggies prowling our gardens and streets today. And even lazy, over-indulged urban felines can catch a sparrow or starling chick as it waits, virtually helpless, on a wall or a bush for mother to feed it.

I know. We once had a killer actually called Moggy and he was a voracious hunter of chicks. That was in the country, however, where there were fewer cats and many more birds. In town, that situation is reversed - and getting worse, I would bet. If each cat killed just one bird, the great decline would be explained.

Trouble is, what would happen if the domestic cat were proved to be the biggest threat to survival of whole species of birds? A cat licence? Compulsory de-clawing? Muzzles? This cat loving nation would rise is revolt - and no politician would dare risk that.

So I suppose they will do what has often been done in the past: blame it on the farmers. I can see the fur flying on this one for a long time to come!

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