Sometimes putting two words together creates a phrase that becomes a powder keg. It's that way with "cats indoors."

In an already divided country, this is a very divisive issue. For anyone who's concerned about our shaky bird populations, however, the solution seems easy — cats with homes should stay inside them.

But of course it's not going to be easy, because many pet owners hold deeply ingrained ideas that cats need to be out in nature and that it's "natural" to allow them to hunt. And there are too many unneutered stray cats roaming out there, as well, adding continually to the homeless feline population.

I'm a cat owner and I know how hard it can be to keep a determined cat inside the house, away from easy prey.

And that's what birds are, easy prey: Even though birds can fly away from danger, cats are stealthy and proficient hunters that count on the element of surprise. Even cats that are well fed will hunt. They're attracted by birds' movements, which trigger their hunting instinct.

Deaf ears

Many organizations, from the American Bird Conservancy to the National Wildlife Federation to the Audubon Society, have been warning us about this danger for decades. Maybe it's a case of overexposure, because much of it seems to be falling on deaf ears.

We're probably all saturated with warnings about cats and advice for keeping them indoors, but this movement is taking too long to gain traction. We can accomplish sea changes in our society — think how accepted smoking in public used to be, but is no longer. And remember when dogs used to roam the neighborhood and no one picked up after them? These things changed, and for the better, after enough pressure from enough people brought things to a tipping point.

An alarming toll

So we can do something about the felines that live in our homes, and here's why we must: Cats kill 1.3 billion to 4 billion birds annually, the Audubon Society says.

Yes, other things kill birds, too, but some of them, such as habitat loss, are too big for an individual to solve. But for this problem all that's needed is for owners to let their cats enjoy the natural world from behind a window.

A reader concerned about a neighbor's cat roaming his yard and lurking under feeders recently wrote to ask whether this meant he was going to have to stop feeding birds. And it may come to that, if talking to the neighbor doesn't result in the cat no longer prowling.

To make hunting harder on any cats that enter his yard, he could try putting wire fencing around his birdbath, and in front of any dense plantings that a cat could hide within. Preventing birds from feeding on the ground under feeders, by raking up whatever food falls from to the ground, is another important step to protect birds.

Don't make it easy

If the neighbor's cat is still killing birds, then it wouldn't be fair to maintain feeders any longer: Feeding concentrates birds in one spot and makes their capture too easy.

An alternative way to provide food is to plant berry bushes and native plants such as coneflower and monarda, with seeds in mind. These will provide natural foods for birds, and won't cause them to crowd in, as feeders do.

One relentless cat can wipe out a neighborhood's entire production of young birds for the year. Think what this means: no new young robins or cardinals, no additional house finches or goldfinches, no new woodpeckers or blue jays, catbirds or house wrens.

It doesn't have to be this way, and it's high time, really past time, we got the message.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at

Corralling cats

Key times to confine cats

Spring: Migratory birds are passing through and are unfamiliar with the dangers in our backyards.

Summer: Young birds are dropping out of nests and learning life skills, and are very vulnerable to cats and other predators.

Fall: Young birds are still learning the ropes, and migrants heading south are vulnerable to cat attacks.

Winter: In this harsh time, birds need to be able to forage freely to consume enough calories to live through the night.

Morning and evening: The times when most birds are actively foraging.

Some alternatives

Some pet owners teach their cats to join them on outdoor walks while harnessed and leashed. Others buy or build a cat enclosure, which confines the cat but lets it enjoy being outdoors. Unfortunately, specialty cat collars and bells just don't do the job. Readers: If you have other ideas for keeping wildlife safe from cats while getting a whiff of the outside world, please send them to me at the address on this page.

Find out more

American Bird Conservancy:

National Wildlife Federation: