Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
In today’s (Sunday) StarTribune outdoor writer Doug Smith writes about the current cat vs. bird discussion. It began recently when National Audubon suspended (and then reinstated) its best conversation writer because he noted in a free-lance (non-Audubon) article that a certain over-the-counter pain medication would kill cats if ingested.
A local response to the question of what to do with outdoor cats came from a man named Mike Fry. He is executive director of Animal Ark, according to the Smith article a no-kill Hastings animal shelter that sterilizes and releases feral cats picked up in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fry is quoted in Smith’s article as saying that the science-based reports of birds and mammals killed by cats nation-wide contain numbers that “are just made up.” The university and Smithsonian Institution researchers who have published their cat-study results are, in other words, lying about their findings. That is both highly unlikely and highly insulting. Fry should be embarrassed at this weak defense of his position, which is, don’t kill feral cats, they’re no big deal.
Fry, as do many other cat fans, prefers capture-neuter-release as the solution to the far-too-many-feral-cat problem. Not that neutering and releasing does anything to curb the cats’ hunting instincts. What Fry, among others, fails to mention is that domestic cats are an invasive species in North America. We had no cats until European settlers introduced them. Out native birds did not evolve with cats as they did with our other bird predators. Cats enjoy a hunting advantage.
According to Smith’s article, Fry also believes that outdoor cats for the most part kill only House Sparrows, House Finches, European Starlings, and pigeons. Talk about bogus statements. There is no way Fry can back that assertion with facts. Those four bird species are non-native, introduced, so I suppose his idea is that losing them is no loss. Those species are vastly outnumbered by native bird species, however. Odds are, unless cats are heavy into bird identification and have unheard of self control, cats kill whatever they please, non-native or not.
If non-native makes a species expendable, then cats are in that category. Theoretically, killing them should be no different than killing a House Sparrow. My position is that cats found free-ranging outdoors should be captured and euthanized. Many cat owners care for their pets enough do what is best for the cat and best for our native wildlife – keep the cat indoors. Other cat owners care so little for their cats that they are willing to sacrifice them to the unproven idea that cats absolutely must be allowed to be outdoors.
After all, it’s their instinct to be outdoors.
It’s also their instinct to kill. And it is not their instinct to be pets.
Municipalities that face this decision – capture and euthanize or neuter and release, sometimes cave to the loud protests of irresponsible cat owners. Too bad for the birds, House Sparrows included.
The photo below, taken from an Internet free-use site, shows a cat – whether feral or a beloved pet is unknown – with a coot in its mouth. Coots are native birds, big ones at that.
A recent column of mine in the Home and Garden section discussing how long birds live contained two errors. First, I said 7 grams, the weight of a particular bird species, was equivalent to half an ounce. Nope. An ounce is about 30 grams, so 7 is more like a quarter-ounce. Which, I suppose, makes survival of these tiny bird creatures for years even more impressive.
Also, discussing how long birds live, I failed to mention that about half of them never make it to their first birthday. Nature can’t afford to let them all survive. Not enough food, not enough habitat. And, you don’t want future generations of a species to be created by anything but the best breeding stock. So, disease, weather, lack of food, pesticides, other chemicals we spread in the environment, predators, cars, windows, and so on cull the population.
Actually, we make more than an effective contribution. Extract us – people – from the calculation, as was the world a long time ago, and you have true survival of the fittest, the evolutionary scheme that filters out the weak and vulnerable, ensuring continuation of the species.
Nature does the required job. Every bird, every animal killed under our hand is over-kill. That’s why the lists of endangered and threatened species grow and grow and grow.
I casually asked a physical therapist the other day, as she pushed on my spine, asked her if she had a cat. Yes. Did she let it outdoors? Yes. Did she know if the cat killed animals? Yes. The cat brought “bodies home to mama.”
Earlier that week a report about birds and cats made news, not big news, but it was reported here and there, even on local TV. This study came from scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. They had impressive numbers: an estimated four billion birds and 20 billion small mammals killed by North American cats each year. Feral and pet cats score big.
Some members of the birding community were upset with this latest in a line of studies all saying the same thing: cats kill. (They evolved to do that; it’s their job.) The birding email lists hummed with links to the report and comment about it. Finally, other list members said enough already, and things went quiet.
Things always go quiet.
I told my editor that I wanted to write about the new report. I would interview and find a new hook for this old story. Well, there is no new hook. It’s the same story. And the innocently uninformed and the ill-informed, those who don’t know what’s happening to birds? “Cats kill,” the therapist said. “That’s what they do.”
We're not going to change the nature of cats. Birds will not suddenly evolve to live successfully with this invasive creature. (Cats are not native to North America, you know. They shipped with the Pilgrims, hopping ashore as the anchor dropped.) I’m not optimistic about convincing all cat owners to keep their pets indoors.
But, hey, the story made local TV! Cool! One of our television stations included a short bit on the cat report the day the it was published. A minute of film, a birdwatcher and his feeders, and two news anchors, all of whom said more than once that kitty kills cats, that kitty should stay indoors. Good job! Keep cats indoors, right there on the local news. And then one of the anchors fell off script, a few words of friendly chit-chat. Innocently uninformed chit-chat: maybe cats are doing us a favor otherwise maybe we’d have too many birds.
Too many birds. Thank you very much. And while you’re up let the cat out.
The biggest outdoors story of the week was the announcement that Zebra Mussels have been found in Lake Winnibigoshish.
Hey! It's the same story! Cats are the Zebra Mussels of the mammal world! Invasive and almost impossible to control.
Or mention the permit being considered in southeastern Minnesota for construction of a wind farm. It would allow eight Bald Eagles to be killed annually by the world’s biggest blenders.
Ask who's going to walk the site and keep the tally. How do you count dead eagles scavenged at night by raccoons? And what happens if you find eight piles of eagle feathers in the first five months of the year? No one is going to pull the plugs. Perhaps there would be fines, so much for each additional eagle. That will not help the eagles.
And so it goes. We are eating ourselves alive, and we like the flavor.
This is either a pet cat outdoors or a feral cat. Either way, it was beneath our birder feeders.
“Trash Animals: How We Life with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species.” That’s the title of a new book soon to be on the shelves of the Hennepin County library. The library’s summary of the book tells us that the various authors, each examining one species, will contrast the reality of the animal with “assumptions widely held about them.” We will be challenged to “look closely at these animals, to re-imagine our ethics of engagement” with them.
A good premise, a useful book I’ll bet, but what an awful title. If the essays are to polish the reputations of these critters, it’s misleading. Either they are trash – and no animals are – or they aren’t. Nor are they filthy, or necessarily unwanted.
The book tells us we regard pigeons, carp, wolves, coyotes, gulls, magpies, prairie dogs, other animals, and, in my case, squirrels, with less than an admiring eye. I suppose someone ill-informed and unfamiliar with wildlife could so consider. Speaking for birds, pigeons, the entire broad family of gulls, and the clever and well-dressed magpie -- all are beautiful animals, each with its own place in our birding history, on our lists, in our guidebooks, and sometimes in our aspirations.
All God’s children have a place in the choir, as the song goes. In most cases, we have created invasive and unwanted species and whatever negative images exist by introducing animals to places they don’t belong. We alter habitat to give competing animals lesser chance at prosperity. If there is a trash issue here, we should examine our careless behavior with non-native species and our disregard for the needs of native species. That’s the trashy part.
The book is being published by the University of Minnesota Press.
A Rock Pigeon, below, our garden-variety pigeon, a beautiful iridescent bird that is not trash in any way. Watch a flock of pigeons wheel through the air. Consider the wonderfully odd way they walk, head bobbing with each step. Why, and how do their eyes adjust to the constant focal change? Or, enjoy their company by tossing them bread crumbs or popcorn on your next visit to a city park. Few bird species are as accepting of us.
A film about the rapid melting of ice on Greenland, entitled “Chasing Ice,” opens at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis Dec. 7 for a one-week run. You can see a preview at www.chasingice.com/see-the-film/trailer/
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