In September I was visiting a neighbor when we noticed their cat ‘playing’ with something. The something turned out to be a small, greenish bird. We shoo’ed the cat away and I was able to catch the bird which wasn’t quite able to fly. It sorta scooted along the ground with one wing clearly not doing its job. I couldn’t identify the bird right away. Definitely a warbler of some kind but combine my overall mediocre bird identification skills with the seasonal vagaries of what are know as CFWs (confusing fall warblers) and it’s not hard to understand. Fortunately I had dropped the cash for the iPhone version of the Sibley field guide and I quickly narrowed it down to a Nashville warbler, Oreothlypis ruficapilla. The bird had a grayish head, green body, yellow belly and a whitish ring around it’s eye. It also had a bit of a rusty-colored ‘cap’ of feathers on it’s head. A quick call and picture texted to Pablo Dulce confirmed the ID.
This was my first ever Nashville warbler so I thought it was pretty cool but it seemed a bit ironic that this was only brought to my attention because of the predations of a cat. It got me wondering just how much biodiversity lives in and around us, as well as moves through, that we simply never see. Had it not been waylaid, this little bird, that I could completely enclose in my hand, would be in Mexico or Central America by now. These birds weigh between 0.2 and 0.4 ounces. That’s 7-12 grams. Probably not even a mouthful for a cat.
I’m not anti-cat although I am also not a cat-person in the dog vs. cat continuum. I grew up with cats as well as dogs. It’s not hard for me to decide which of the two make more loving pets, and I’m not alone on this one, but really, it’s a personal preference. As far as I’m concerned, people who can find love and affection in a cat should love them just like I love my dog. Pets give us unconditional love (“if I was only half the man my dog thinks I am”), broaden our horizons beyond our own species, calm our nerves and share our lives. People who own dogs are pretty clear that they aren’t allowed to wander freely into others yards and terrorize their children, dump on the lawn, or dig up the turnips. Some dogs go on leashes. Others are just behaved enough to stick around. A few, like our Luna, get periodic wanderlust, bust through the invisible fence, and go on a walkabout. Dogs, nonetheless, are fairly well contained and it’s generally accepted that a dog wandering around alone is a lost dog that needs to go home.
Cats, on the other hand, are fed and coddled at home, and then set outside to wander freely throughout whatever territory they decide is worth a visit. Once in a while you see a cat on a leash, which, for some reason, leaves me feeling embarrassed for the owner. I once saw a cat in a travel box perched in a child’s stroller. For the most part, however, cats are given carte blanche when it comes to the outdoors. People who would apologize for their dog dumping in their yard tend not to equate the same to a cat. Cat’s get different treatment and I imagine it’s because a) they aren’t scary like some dogs can be and b) they tend to dump invisibly. Cat shit in the sandbox is pretty gross but it’s hard to know who to pin it on. Generally, it just appears.
This seems pretty acceptable to cat owners. Letting a poorly-trained pit bull roam the neighborhood might lead to a lawsuit but a cat stalking the neighborhood bird feeder is nothing to raise a stink over. Cats don’t attack or even really scare people so that isn’t an issue. For the non-humans in the neighborhood, however, the threat is a bit more real. Some people take pride in their cats prowess as a hunter. Farm cats killing mice and rats are a genuine asset. It’s a bit different here where the likelihood is that the ‘mouse’ is less likely a mouse but a vole or a shrew or even a local mouse species that, despite the ick factor, really isn’t a problem and may, like shrews, be an asset if your interest is insect control. Lots of people don’t really care. I personally value biodiversity in general, with the exception of the hairier spiders, and I don’t like cats running loose outside and particularly in my own property. I put out bird feeders cuz I like to feed birds, not cats. I can’t really blame cats on this because really, a cat is a cat. As Jessica Rabbit said, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Cats are made, and driven, to kill. They like it and they do it very well.
The University of Georgia did an experiment where they attached small cameras to a bunch of cats and followed their behavior as they wandered about outdoors. Among their findings were that cats average about 2.1 kills per week. Most of these kills are not brought back to the residence but either eaten or left where they were killed. This doesn’t include feral cats, of course. When you factor them in, it is estimated that cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds per year in the U.S. For wild mammals, the number is between 6.9 and 20 billion. There are 84 million house cats in the U.S. They kill more native wildlife than all other predators combined. They are the number one killer of garden niceties like the gray Catbird, that likes to set up home in our yard. I like their song and, even if you don’t like birds, they really aren’t bette dead than alive. And of course you don’t want to kill a mockingbird. Their number one enemy are cats too. We have a pretty miserable record when it comes to the native flora and fauna of this, or really, any, country. Sadly, this is human nature. My wish is to ease up the pressure a bit. Given a chance, nature manages. Let’s keep cats inside.
Recently I have noted a sharp increase in the number of missing cat posters around town. I’ve been told that missing dogs stand a good chance of turning up but missing cats tend to stay gone. Cars are a factor but around here we now have resident coyotes. Having moved in to stay, coyotes seem to take the blame for any missing cat, and, for a large proportion, perhaps such accusations are well-founded. People can get pretty heated up about coyotes taking cats but common sense and a dose of karma might tell them that what’s good for the goose is good for the proverbial gander. Cats, let outside to do natures work, risk becoming caught on the wrong end of the food chain for a change. I don’t blame coyotes any more than I blame cats, in fact, less so. They don’t get a bowl of Friskies every night. If they don’t kill, they don’t eat. Period.
I believe most cat owners enjoy nature as much as anyone and probably don’t realize the impact cats might have. To help spread the word, I’ve embarked on a campaign to inform cat owners about the perils of letting ones cat outdoors. They might not share my concerns over native wildlife but surely they care about their own pets. So, when I see a Lost Cat poster, I have a supply of stickers I had made that I affix to the poster so that at least other cat owners might understand the perils of the great outdoors. You might see them about town and, if you do, think about that little Nashville warbler you’ve never seen and maybe never will. We love cats not just because cats are whatever they are. They are a part of a once natural world we have brought into our homes and from which we (apparently) have discovered joy. With a little effort, you will discover similar examples living all around you. Just give them a chance.
American Bird Conservancy “KittyCam” article
Milius, Susan, “Cats kill more than one billion birds each year” Science News, Feb. 23, 2013
Rosenthal, E., “Tweety Was Right: Cats Are a Bird’s No. 1 Enemy“, March 2001, New York Times