(Gray catbird; Credit: Peter Massas)
Certain birds in the burbs are suffering big time, according to a paper in the Journal of Ornithology.
The problem is a basic one that could be learned from even a Tweety Bird cartoon: If you put hungry cats and birds together, the feathers will fly. In this case, some birds are experiencing up to an 80 percent population drop due to consumption by cats mostly, but also due to other bird predators, such as rats.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists appropriately focused their study on gray catbirds, which have a feline-like call. These birds live in suburban areas, including parts of Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. — Bethesda, Opal Daniels and Spring Park — where the research took place.
The scientists discovered that vulnerable fledgling catbirds, outfitted with radio transmitters for tracking, were easy pickings for cats and the other observed predators, including crows, to the point that most baby catbirds didn’t even reach adulthood. Half of the deaths were due to cat predation in Opal Daniels and Spring Park. Bethesda cat owners perhaps are more vigilant, because the scientists couldn’t detect any feline predators in their survey of that suburb.
In the other cases, the researchers either witnessed the catbird deaths, or determined that they were feline-related by the condition of the fledgling’s remains, such as a decapitated bird with the body left uneaten — defining characters of a cat kill.
“The predation by cats on fledgling catbirds made these suburban areas ecological traps for nesting birds,” Peter Marra, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute research scientist, said in a press release. “The habitats looked suitable for breeding birds with lots of shrubs for nesting and areas for feeding, but the presence of cats, a relatively recent phenomenon, isn’t a cue birds use when deciding where to nest.”
So where are all of these cats coming from? Many are bored housecats that owners let outside. Others are feral cats looking for a quick meal.
“Cats are natural predators of not just birds but also mammals. Killing is what they are meant to do, and it’s not their fault,” said Marra. “Removing both pet and feral cats from outdoor environments is a simple solution to a major problem impacting our native wildlife.”
“Removing” is a loaded term, especially to someone like me who has been involved in feral cat rescue programs over the years. The housecat part of the problem should be easy to solve, with owners keeping their cats indoors at all times. This is better for the cat too, increasing its longevity and keeping it away from dangers. I’ve raised several cats to their mid-20s. Indoor living, quality food, regular medical care and plenty of love and attention add to the recipe for feline success.
Ferals are trickier to deal with, but I believe efforts should be made to humanely trap, spay, neuter and vaccinate them. Socialize the cats and adopt them out, if possible. I’ve been in the kitty trenches on this and can report a lot of local success in controlling suburban cat populations and keeping both the felines and birds healthy.
On the bird side of the equation, you can also create an inviting habitat in your garden without bringing in other unwanted animals. A bird favorite in my own garden is a whiskey barrel, turned upside down, and filled with water twice daily. You wouldn’t believe how many birds gravitate daily to this simple bath-and-drink spot.
For more information on how to create sustainable bird habitat in your own yard, please visit this Audubon page.