There’s been a bit of a debate in the British media recently concerning the impact our domestic cats and dogs have on UK wildlife populations. I couldn’t possibly comment on what our canine friends get up to in their spare time, as I’ve never owned a dog; but as a life-long cat lover I feel reasonably qualified to offer an opinion on the hunting behaviours of Britain’s moggies. I’m going to focus my attention on urban-dwelling cats and garden birds, as it’s this issue which seems to cause the most conflict between cat owners and wildlife enthusiasts.
As both a cat owner and someone who has been fascinated by nature ever since I can remember, I resent the assumption, made by some people, that cat ownership and an appreciation of wildlife are mutually exclusive. But I also feel that we cat owners have a duty to try and reduce the number of fatalities caused by our feline friends.
Domestic cats kill an estimated 200 million creatures (including insects) in Britain each year. Urban wildife populations are more affected, due to the high numbers of cats present in our towns and cities. I’ve always lived in an urban environment, and in my experience most people are happy to tolerate – and even welcome – cats despatching mice and rats with impunity; but cats killing garden birds is another matter entirely, proving to be an emotive issue which often invokes the word ‘murder’.
I think it’s important for non-cat lovers to view cats’ hunting activities in a more scientific way: cats are not ‘murderers’, they are merely carnivores near the top of the food chain who have evolved to hunt other animals lower down the chain. Another popular misconception is that all cats spend every waking hour outside killing things. Whereas we cat owners know that the desire to hunt can vary quite considerably: some cats will indeed kill anything that moves, while others – literally – wouldn’t hurt a fly, and the majority of cats fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
However, cat owners can be guilty of turning a blind eye to the fact that they are sharing their homes with highly efficient predators: the cute and cuddly kitty who loves a tummy tickle when she’s stretched out on your bed can transform into a gimlet-eyed assasin the moment her hunting instinct kicks in.
I think many cat owners also underestimate the amount of emotion people invest in their garden birds; and although I never enjoy receiving a load of earache from an irate bird lover who’s convinced that I’m harbouring a gang of serial killers, I can understand why they feel so strongly. For instance, if someone has installed a nest box in their garden and then derived a great deal of pleasure from watching a pair of birds raise a family, it’s not difficult to imagine how traumatic it would be to witness the resulting fledglings being picked off one by one by the local moggies.
But it’s not all doom and gloom! You’ll be pleased to hear that we cat owners can actually do quite a lot to reduce the carnage going on in our back yards.
- Fit a bell to your cat’s collar – this measure has been shown to reduce kills by up to a third. If you fancy going hi-tech, then you could always invest in a audio-visual alarm collar, which senses when your cat goes into stalk mode and activates an alarm, thus alerting birds to the danger present. These gadgets are available from Petcetera for £9.99. (It’s worth noting that the alarm unit is attached to an elasticated collar, so it must be transferred to a safey-release collar prior to use, for the sake of your cat’s well-being.)
- Keep your cat indoors at night – this reduces the number of kills by around 50%. In addition to saving the lives of small mammals and amphibians, this simple measure provides vital protection for birds: they are at their most vulnerable around dawn and dusk, when they are busy re-fuelling after a long period without food or stocking up in order to get through the night ahead.
- The main reason given for not keeping cats in at night is ‘I don’t want to have to deal with a litter tray.’ Well, tough; even if you’re not bothered about protecting local wildlife, in order to provide proper care for your cat you need a litter tray, it’s a simple as that. Cats should be kept indoors at night for their own safety too: your cat will probably wander much further afield under the cover of darkness, and so is far more likely to be involved in a road traffic accident or a fight with another cat.
- Keep an eye out for families of birds with newly-fledged chicks, and if you see any, shut your cat in until the chicks have got the hang of the whole flying think. I do this every year, and yes, my cats do resent being stuck inside (especially when they can see baby birds through the window!), but it only adds up to a few days spent indoors each year, and it does save a lot of feathery lives.
- It’s essential that cats are neutered. Not only are there far too many unwanted cats in the UK already, but un-neutered cats of both sexes often wander a long way from home and become lost. A lost tom will more than likely live out the rest of his life as a stray. While a pregnant female unable to find her way home will find a safe place outdoors to give birth. If the cat and her kittens aren’t lucky enough to be rescued by an animal charity (and most won’t be), this one family can rapidly become a feral cat colony (cats breed like rabbits, in case you didn’t know). Although I’m not aware of any studies carried out in this area, I think it’s safe to assume that strays and ferals pose much more of a threat to urban birdlife than our pampered moggies, as they need to hunt in order to survive.
Neutering has numerous other benefits which you can read more about here.
If, like me, you enjoy providing refreshments for the birds in your garden, the following tips are useful for preventing them from falling prey to the local cats.
- Do not ground feed, unless you’re lucky enough to have a truly massive lawn which makes it possible for birds to spot a stalking cat before it has time to pounce – unlikely in urban areas. I get round this problem by placing food for ground feeders, such as blackbirds and dunnocks, on my shed roof – it works a treat. Warning: do ensure that cats aren’t able to access your shed roof surreptitiously before trying this at home.
- Bear in mind that a cat can scale fences and tree trunks in a Spiderman stylee and cover up to six times its own body length in a single leap, and position your nest boxes and feeders accordingly.
- If you plant berried shrubs to provide winter food, use plants with a dense, thorny growth habit, such as holly, hawthorn or pyracantha. Cats don’t like climbing these (who would?), and so birds will be able to enjoy the berries in peace.
- Ensure that bird baths and ponds are safe from ambush too.
I’ve found these measures to be highly effective; I genuinely don’t recall my cats catching any garden birds in the last five years. We do suffer the odd bird fatality from time to time, but that’s down to neighbours allowing their cats 24hr outside access.
So there you have it. All it takes is for us cat owners to show a little consideration towards our local birdlife, and for bird lovers to exercise a little common sense when it comes to providing food and shelter for their feathered friends, and we could all live together for ever and ever in perfect harmony. Well, maybe I wouldn’t go that far; but you get the general idea.
(Images: cat & mouse and cat & long-tailed tit via catbehaviour. blogs.lincoln.ac.uk; cat on nest box via dobbies.co.uk; cats watching woodpigeon via ladyoftheloch.co.uk; house sparrow on bird feeder via gardennature.co.uk; kitten & owl via arbroath.blogspot.com )