Bird Watcher's General Store

Cats Kill Songbirds - 09/21/07


Dear Bird Folks,

I have been feeding birds for many years, but recently a couple who have three cats has moved in next-door. The cats have quickly moved into my yard. Do you have any humane suggestions on how to deal with the cats?

- Kathryn, Springfield, MA

Hello, Kathryn,

My name is Simki. I am an exchange student from Borneo and will be answering your question this week. The usual writer of this column has suddenly been stricken with a bad case of chilblains, can't write, and, therefore, is not responsible for any of this content. If any cat lovers out there are unhappy or other wise upset with my answer, they should not bother the usual writer but should contact me directly at Simki Smith, 12 Banana St., Humidville, Borneo. There, that should keep me, I mean the other writer, alive for a while longer.

The battle between wild birds and the domestic house cat is well known. However, with the exception of the Great-horned Owl (which is notorious for grabbing cats at night), and the cartoons (Sylvester has no chance against that clever Tweety Bird), the battle is extremely one-sided. According to some estimates, every day of the year five million of our native songbirds are lost to cats. That's right. Every 24 hours, in the United States alone, five million chickadees, cardinals, bluebirds, hummingbirds, etc., are killed by both feral and pet house cats.

With that grim statistic in mind, your concern about your new neighbors' cats being a problem for the birds in your yard, or anywhere else, is well-founded. I've never quite understood why cats aren't governed by the same rules that apply to everything else we own. Could we park our cars or keep our lawnmowers on our neighbor's property? Can we let our dogs, horses, goats, or wildebeests wander over and spend the day in the yard next door? Of course not. There are rules, either legal or based on common etiquette, that say our stuff belongs in our yard. Yet, somehow cats have been given a pass to wander wherever they want.

Years ago (back in Borneo), my in-laws lived in the house next to me. We had a dog that ran between both houses, either to visit or mooch snacks. One day my in-laws, probably in an effort to get away from me, sold their house and moved. The new people, who were very nice, politely complained about our dog going over to their property looking for handouts. They were right to complain and I apologized. However, while I was apologizing, I asked if they in turn would keep their cat out of my yard, and away from my bird feeders. I can still see the look of shock on my new neighbor's face. He was speechless. He wanted to say, "It's a cat. Cats are supposed to wander the neighborhood." But he didn't say that. He thought for a minute and said: "You are right. My cat doesn't belong in your yard anymore than your dog belongs in mine."

With that in mind, I suggest that you simply speak to your neighbors and perhaps they'll act like responsible adults and keep their animals where they belong, on their own property. Another step is to contact your local animal control. Many towns have introduced laws that encourage pet owners to keep control of all of their animals, be they dogs, cats or wildebeests. It's also important to point out that pet cats (not feral) are considered property and thus have legal protection. That means the usual Rambo techniques, which some people employ when they can't think of anything else, aren't allowed.

It may surprise bird lovers to know that in the battle for keeping cats under control, they have a surprising ally. Many gardeners (who usually have issues with birds, too) are just as upset with cats as birders are. Apparently cats like to turn flowerbeds into litter boxes. Ha! I think that's kind of funny...I mean, how awful.

It is the result of grumbling gardeners that most of the cat-away products were made. The products range from unpleasant powders, to smelly liquids, to electronic sound repellents. Although I've never personally used any of these products, my work with squirrels makes me doubt their effectiveness. What I typically suggest for people with cat problems is to place bird feeders in the open, away from cover. Then erect a short fence around the feeding area. The fence probably won't keep a cat out, but when the cat climbs or leaps over the fence the birds will be alerted to its presence. And by the way, putting a bell on a cat won't save any birds, it will just annoy the rest of us.

As they say, cats aren't the problem; it's their owners. So the first thing I would do, Kathryn, is have a chat with your neighbor and go from there. And oh, by the way, remember the guy with the cat who moved into my in-laws' house? Well, ever since the day we spoke, my dog and their cat have stayed in their respective yards and my neighbor and I have been friends ever since. Us Borneoans are a lot more civilized than you might think.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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