A Tail of Two Species
Cat lover and bird enthusiast, do the two have to be mutually exclusive?
As bird populations continue to decline worldwide, there is much discussion about the significance of the role cats are playing in their demise. It cannot be denied that cats do pose some threat to birds and other small animals - one of the main reasons cats proved such attractive pets for thousands of years was their effectiveness when it came to hunting any small species that humans saw as “pests”. These days however, cat owners do not keep them for pest control, but rather as companions, so they often forget or ignore the fact that their pet is still a tiny hunter.
So what do we do about the impact of cats on wildlife? The answers are not always straightforward as opinions vary hugely depending on where you are - and on who you ask. In the UK, cats might well be the predators with the biggest impact on our local wildlife due to the sheer number of domesticated cats we keep, and the fact that they are allowed to roam about unchecked. However, according to sources such as the RSPB, despite estimations that “cats in the UK catch up to 100 million prey items over spring and summer, of which 27 million are birds”, the general consensus is that there is no clear evidence that this is significantly contributing to the decline in our bird populations.
Comparatively, countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand do perceive outdoor cats as a big threat to local birdlife and they have taken proactive measures to control feline populations. In his book The Bird-Friendly City, Timothy Beatley presents the figures from a 2013 article published in Nature Communications that estimate that “in the continental United States alone, cats are responsible for 1.3 billion to 4 billion bird deaths each year”. In Australia, the concern around cats’ effect on local wildlife - especially birds - has led them to implement some extreme “solutions”, the most drastic and deplorable of which involves dropping poison-laced sausages from airplanes with the intention of eliminating feral cats in the country.
There are many ways of minimising the effect cats can have on local wildlife - without having to resort to inhumane measures. From keeping cats indoors, to building catios or investing in collars that alert prey to the proximity of a cat, here are a few ways you can help.
This is a surprisingly unpopular option for cat-owners in the UK, but there’s no denying that it is one of the most effective methods of preventing predation by cats. There are roughly 8 million domestic cats in the UK, most of them concentrated in towns and cities, meaning that the pressure on local wildlife in these areas is artificially high.
However, some people feel that keeping a cat indoors is too extreme and believe that cats need access to the outdoors to really thrive. A 2012 study found that, in Great Britain, fewer than 16% of cat owners interviewed would consider keeping their cats indoors. Across the Atlantic however, the picture is completely reversed. According to a 2021 publication in the journal Animals, “in the United States of America (USA), 63% of domestic cats are kept entirely indoors”.
The option to keep your cat indoors or to allow it outdoors therefore, comes down to personal preference and the prevailing culture in your country. There are many ways you can enrich your indoor cat’s life - by helping them develop their hunting instincts through playtime, adopting a pair of cats instead of just one so that they can play together and keep each other entertained, making sure they have ample space to run about and different surfaces in the house they can jump up to and perch on, etc. The possibilities can stretch as far as your imagination can.
If keeping your cat permanently indoors is not the solution for you, one option to consider is a hunting-deterrent collar. There’s little evidence that the traditional bell collar does much to prevent cats from killing birds or other small prey, but there are other collars designed with the specific purpose of minimising the impact of cats’ hunting.
The rainbow collar, invented by a U.S. company called Birdsbesafe, is perhaps the most famous. It is a brightly-coloured cover that can be slipped on to any standard cat collar. The idea behind it is that, because songbirds have a unique eye anatomy that allows them to see bright colours especially well, they will be able to see the advancing cat much more clearly and fly to safety in time.
An independent study of the Birdsbesafe collar found that “there was a 87% reduction in the number of birds caught” by cats wearing the rainbow collar.
Catios are an increasingly popular option in the United States, but a relatively unknown concept in the UK. They are a pretty good compromise between keeping a cat indoors but still allowing them to enjoy the outdoors safely.
The word “catio” comes from cat patio. Catios come in all different shapes and sizes, from mesh tunnels running along the outside of a house or garden fence, to large structures that actually act as outdoor patios with plenty of space for your cat to explore. Cats won’t have miles of open territory to roam, but they’ll be able to enjoy the sights, sounds and feeling of being outdoors without posing a threat to birds.
So far we’ve talked about various ways in which to manage domesticated cats, but feral cats are a crucial part of the puzzle too. The same 2013 study cited in The Bird-Friendly City found that feral cats had a greater impact on wildlife than domesticated cats. It makes sense - feral cats actually depend on the hunt to feed, so it goes beyond mere instinct for them. Helping manage feral cat colonies therefore is extremely important when it comes to protecting local wildlife.
The most widespread method of controlling feral cat populations are TNR (trap-neuter-return) programmes. These involve setting humane traps for feral cats, having them neutered, and then returning them back to the place they were picked up.
By neutering a colony, we avoid putting the cats through the stress of being removed from their known environment, while also avoiding having ever-increasing numbers of feral cats in any single area. Neutered cats also tend to roam less, which is why it’s a good idea to get domesticated cats neutered too.
Some criticize TNR because it doesn’t immediately solve the issue of cats being able to hunt wildlife, but in the long-term, if the colony is managed properly, it will die out with no new kittens being born. Any “immediate” alternatives are likely to hurt the cats, and any responsible animal-lover will be against extreme measures (yes, we’re looking at your cat-culling plan, Australia).
Adopting adult feral cats into domestic homes, for example, which may seem like a good alternative, is not a viable option because beyond the age of two or three months it becomes difficult to socialise feral kittens who have by then made up their minds about humans and will likely do their best to avoid any contact with us (what can we say, cats are wise creatures after all!). Moving adult cats away from their environment and putting them in human homes is actually a very stressful situation for the felines and does them more harm than good.
In comparison to their adult counterparts, feral kittens under the age of about 8-12 weeks (those that can still be socialised) still have an opportunity of finding a human home. This is where fostering can make a world of difference. Feral cats live a tough life, scavenging for food, vulnerable to accidents or disease, and often sheltering in less-than-adequate conditions. If we can remove young weaning-age kittens from that environment and give them a loving home, it’s a win-win situation - fewer feral cats on the prowl and a loving home for the kittens.
Feral kittens, however, need someone to take care of them until they are old enough and socialised enough to be adopted. Fostering is an incredibly important and rewarding job - and it’s not difficult to do! You don’t need loads of room, since the tiny kittens will be confined to a relatively small and kitten-proof space, such as a pen. If you foster through an organisation, they will usually provide you with equipment and cover the cost of any food, material or other expenses that you may incur. Get in touch with your local cat charities and organisations to get information on fostering and to find out if you can help.
Whether you are considering fostering kittens or still need some convincing, we’d recommend checking @kittenxlady's work. She is a true expert with years of hands-on experience and her website and Instagram page are full of helpful tips and information on fostering.
Being responsible cat owners and being conscious that our furry companions do pose a threat to the birds and other wildlife we share our space with is incredibly important, but we wanted to end this discussion with a reminder of the scope of the problem.
There are many issues affecting bird populations today - loss of habitat, lack of food security, changes in weather patterns, and seabird bycatch, to name but a few. However, when you look for an explanation for falling bird populations, predation by other animals - both invasive and non-invasive species - is often cited as the culprit. We are always very quick to blame other animals while turning a blind eye to the fact that, actually, the main culprit, and the species that has wreaked the most havoc on its environment, is us. Humans have contributed to declines not just in bird populations, but in wildlife in general. Artificially high predation by cats is also a man-made problem, after all. So instead of pitting cats and other predators against birds, we should start by tackling the issues we’ve caused. That means fighting for birds on many different levels, from advocating for better land management and fishing practices, to regenerating lost habitats or phasing out fossil fuels.
Even on a personal level there are plenty of meaningful steps we can take in our day to day. Being mindful of our cats’ effect on wildlife is definitely one of them, but also making our gardens or balconies bird-friendly places, making sure our money goes to companies with more ethical and sustainable practices, or changing our diet to be more climate-conscious. To paraphrase a quote from Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef, “We don’t need a handful of people doing things perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”.