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Death in the garden: is Puss to blame?

Friday 28 March 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, saddened by the decline in much loved garden birds like the robin and the blackbird, asks the question that many bird lovers dodge: are hunting domestic cats to blame

EVEN as I write this, I can hear the squabble going on down the back lane, a mixture of high pitched squawks and squeaks with the odd throaty growl thrown in. They are at it again in the neighbour’s ivy, the nesting blackbirds mobbing the owner’s moggie

This happens almost every year at this time, because George the cat, a neutered tom, likes to torment the pair of blackbirds which have nested for some yeas now in the thick tangle of ivy and honeysuckle which drapes over their back wall.

At risk from cats?
At risk from cats?

George can’t be much of a hunter, or the birds would no longer be there, and that may be because he has had the operation. But he still likes to annoy them by sitting on the uncovered stretch of wall not four feet away from the nest. Sometimes we see him in our back yard, eyeing up the Jenny wren which visits us almost daily, hopping through the forsythia branches and searching the nooks and crannies in our wall for insects.

A few years ago, we had own Moggie – that was his name - and, unlike George, he was a fearsome hunter: his favourite trick was to drag the headless corpses of baby rabbits in through his cat flap and leave them in the hallway for anyone to step onto. This was not pleasant for anyone walking to the downstairs loo at night in bare feet.

When he died, we decided not to have another cat because of the number of birds that he had killed. What’s more, he killed them for fun for he was so well fed that he regularly ignored the food we provided.

His favourite time was when parent birds had brought out their new fledglings to sit on our wall. Moggie would hunt them down one by one until he had wiped out the entire family, including the parents.

What brought this to mind this week was the publication of the results of the Royal Society for the Protection of Bird’s latest census which suggests that the numbers of garden birds have fallen by 20% in just four years, despite a succession of mild winters which were once the biggest avian killers.

The numbers of ever-present, common-or-garden favourites like the robin, down 37%, are frightening: blackbird, down 39%, the house sparrow (-64%) and the ubiquitous starling, down a massive 77%. The question is: what caused these steep declines?

For the RSPB, Britain’s biggest conservation charity, this is a political hot potato. All sorts of reasons have been floated by ornithologists, including blaming DIY enthusiasts for blocking up holes under the eaves of buildings where sparrows and starlings used to nest. Another is the Government drive to cram even more houses into ever smaller plots, leaving little open space for birds to thrive.

There has been a huge growth in the number of pet cats as dog ownership has gone into decline

In the past, I have suggested to the RSPB that the growing cat population – brought about by news laws against dog fouling, plus the social trend of more and more people living alone – is the main cause of this sudden rise in bird deaths.

But the society, which funds its world-class avian research programme from charitable donations, is reluctant to point its finger is this direction because many of its donors will be cat owners. And they get very cross indeed when it is suggested that their lovely puss is in fact a vicious serial killer.

There has been a huge growth in the number of pet cats as dog ownership has gone into decline, particularly in urban areas where “poop scoop” laws have – quite rightly – turned taking the dog for a walk from a rewarding pleasure into a stinking ordeal.

So could I suggest to cat owners that they keep their animals indoors – particularly in the next couple of months when the fledglings begin to emerge to practice their flying skills – or not to replace puss when he or she dies. You can get plenty of pleasure from the wild birds in your garden – and save a lot of money on exorbitant cat food.

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