Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Horrible Truth About Cats (For Nonbirders)

Anyone who has spent a little bit of time birding or studying biology/ecology have learned the terrible truth about cats. Cats, besides being the reigning masters of the internets, also hold the title of being one of the most successful and destructive bird predators in existence. The number of birds estimated to be killed by cats annually in the U.S. alone numbers 500 million at a minimum...every year. The number boggles the mind. Most of us can't even truly comprehend 500 million of anything. There are not even close to 500 million people in the country.

That all said, most people are not in the business of studying ecology. When people hear me or other birders listing a litany of reasons why outdoor cats are basically pests, they can become confused. Whats the problem? Haven't cats always eaten birds? How the fuck can you not like cats? Today, we will clear this all up.

The first thing that sets apart domestic cats from most predators here in the U.S. is that they are considered an invasive species. In simple terms, an invasive species is a non-native (aka alien or exotic) species that, when introduced to an ecosystem, may cause environmental (and frequently economic) harm. Invasive species are most often introduced to new areas by human activity...sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Invasive species do especially well (i.e. their numbers explode) when they lack predators, as cats essentially do. Many successful invasive species do best in areas disturbed by human activity, although many do just as well out in what is left of "the wild".

What are some invasive species in California? Rock Pigeons. Feral pigs. Eucalyptus trees. Mediterranean Fruit-Fly. African Clawed-frogs. Norway Rats. Cats.

Secondly, your cat is a domestic cat. Domestication is the process whereby a population of animals or plants is changed at the genetic level of selection in order accentuate traits that benefit other words, through breeding, people have made cats into what we want them to be. That means cats are comparable to, in terms of evolution, as a toy poodle, a weiner dog, a pot-bellied pig, a miniature horse or your typical dairy cow. Although they certainly retain some of the instincts of their ancestors, there is little more about domestic cats that can be called "natural".

So, as you can see, the modern cat is both domesticated and an invasive species; bred to suit the needs of humans, but sometimes capable of living in the wild...often they live in human homes, and take short forays into the outdoors at their leisure. In short...they do not fit well into any existing ecosystem, since they are a strictly human product.

Here are some things I've heard from cat-lovers over the years, and what you too can now respond to these statements with.

"Lions, jaguars and cheetahs are cats. Shouldn't biologists be worried about them killing birds too?"

Its true, those are all related to domestic cats to a degree, but saying a lion and Garfield are the same thing is like saying a human and an orangutan are the same things. Although there are some similarities, think about what your'e saying...would your cat Boots survive a night on the Serengeti Plain? Would you be ok with your 3 year old niece petting a lion? Do the lives of these animals really have much in common?

Besides the simple fact that these big cats primarily eat mammals (most birds are too small and agile for these huge predators), there are a slough of differences. The modern cat has been domesticated, the other wild cats have evolved free of intentional human influence. As top predators they have played an important part of their ecosystems for thousands of years, affecting not only populations of other animals but, as a result, the very landscapes they live in. Current populations of native animals are not at risk of becoming completely extinct due to predation by the big cats, because the native animals have evolved with these predators and have learned to be wary of them.

So, in the big picture, how is Boots The Cat different from a lion? Domesticated cats are relatively new to the scene, and have not arisen out of anything that can construed as "the natural order". Wildlife has not had time to adjust to this new predator, and therefore are at considerable risk in areas they are forced to share with domestic cats.

"My cat has a bell. It won't be able to catch birds"

Why would a bird think that hearing a small bell equals imminent death? Have you sent out a memo to all birds regarding the exact meaning of the sound of a bell? That makes no sense. Besides, a smart cat knows how to stalk prey quietly.

"My cat doesn't kill birds".

Unless your cat doesnt go outside, is missing a leg, or is extremely obese, you have no way to prove that. Even declawed cats (something fucked up in its own right) take birds. Cats frequently do not bring their kills home, so the owner would have no way of knowing.

I am looking at Prudence The Cat (left) as I type this. She is sitting on a pile of laundry and licking herself relentlessly. The fruits of her infrequent trips outdoors have only lead to bad flea outbreaks, getting wounded by another cat, and generally getting scared a lot. Being ill-equipped for the outdoors, I doubt she has had the opportunity for bird destruction...she is A Model Cat.

"My cat eats a lot. It doesnt need to kill birds."

Do you not know what a cat is? Most of what cats do make no sense. Cats kill things for fun probably just as often as killing things to actually eat. They are evil bastards...don't let their cuteness fool you.

"So what if cats kill birds? Its just nature"

Hopefully you all understand by now that your cat Shadow killing a phoebe in your backyard is not an act of nature, its pretty much an extension of the carelessness of people. You might as well be out there yourself with a BB gun. Would you call a duckhunter with a shotgun a natural predator? Cats are no more natural, and they don't have bag limits, hunting seasons, or a preference in what they catch.

"My cat needs to be outside. It is so much happier".

Lets keep it real here. I have met a lot of cats in my day. So have you. I have not noticed that indoor cats are catatonically depressed (no pun intended), nor the outside cats acting any happier than indoor cats, and I will bet you haven't noticed any big difference either. If you really think your cat will benefit from unrestricted access to the outdoors, consider this from the American Bird Conservancy: "Life for outdoor cats is risky. They can get hit by cars; attacked by dogs, other cats, coyotes or wildlife; contract fatal diseases, such as rabies, feline distemper, or feline immunodeficiency virus; get lost, stolen, or poisoned; or suffer during severe weather conditions. Outdoor cats lead considerably shorter lives on average than cats kept exclusively indoors." 

I hope ya'll now have a better understanding of not only the brutal impacts of domestic cats on birdlife, but how far removed they are from anything that can be called natural. My advice? Don't feed feral cats, or any outdoor cats for that matter. Keep your cats indoors, and spay and neuter them. If you don't...we will have no choice but to unleash the pelicans.

Thanks to The Internet and Brittany Lee for today's photos.


  1. If you're not willing to take responsibility for the actions of your pets, don't have those animals as pets. Simple enough.

  2. Here here! I laughed way too hard at that last photo.

  3. What about barn cats managing rats in a hat loft?

    1. I assume you mean a hay loft. I like the idea of a hat loft though.

      Its a nice thought but I dont know why any cat would just want to limit itself to only catching nothing but rats, and only in a barnyard. Rats are not a positive thing of course, but putting a big dent in their numbers is a tall order.

      At any rate, Barn Owls do a much better job at that sort of thing than cats, and a lot of farmers know this.

  4. Cats belong indoors where they are safe & healthy, where they do not kill native birds, mammals or reptiles. Period.

  5. My neighbors have a cat that comes into my yard every day and sits under the bird feeder. I've sprinkled Shake-A-Way cat repellent and the cat just plays in it. We are surrounded by six foot wooden fences and the cat just jumps over them. I am at my wits end.

    My neighbors have three dogs confined to their yard and they bark all the time which warns the cat when I'm around. I got the cat with the garden hose twice, but now he's gone the minute I set foot outside. The neighbors are not interested in doing anything about it.

    What can I do?

    1. Shakeaway is some sort of granules splashed with fox pee or something like that. I would go with straight up wolf or mountain lion urine, which you can get online.

      Besides that, I cant think of anything off the top of my head that doesnt fall into animal cruelty territory. Good luck!

    2. Steve, what an ambitious pelican!

      TaxMan, I've had success with a device that emits a high-pitched sound when it detects motion. The cats don't like the noise. Some cats are smart enough to figure out where they can move to avoid the noise so I have mine on constantly. I have to buy a new one each year, but it's totally worth it to keep those asshole cats out of my yard.

    3. Elizabeth, Thanks for the tip on the Yard Gard Ultrasonic Animal Repeller. It seems to have pretty good reviews so I just ordered one. There's an electric outlet outside where the cat hangs out, so I'll try that first.

      If it works, I am in your debt!

    4. My mom always kept a super soaker next to the kitchen window. That worked pretty well.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Elizabeth, The Yard Guard Animal Repeller arrived today. I set it up outside, but the cat usually prowls our birds in the morning. What is the best setting to repel cats?


    7. One of my friends had neighbors who let their cat out several times a day. The cat kept killing the birds that came to his feeder. He tried talking to the people, but got nowhere, so he got a live trap and put it out in his yard. When he caught the cat, he took it back to the neighbor, and said that the next time it happened, he'd take the cat to the county animal shelter instead. The cat has remained indoors ever since.

  6. "Can I have a WIT-NESS?!?!?"

    Yay-YUS. SAY it, man. SAY IT!

    By coincidence, there is a photo w/1 of my 2 (100% indoor) kitties on my blog today. I'll give you $100 if you find a photo of my kitty outside and NOT penned into my garden WITH me (which is rare, anyhow--don't want them killing my garden toad. And they will.).

    Everything about a cat makes sense, if you understand that they exist to kill. =) With nap breaks (20 hr) to stay fresh. There's a REASON they stretch every time they get up. So they are READY.

    Bless you for this article. xoxoxoxox

  7. Lizards too. Frickin' cats have killed all the blue bellies in my neighborhood.

    And we have small native cat in CA whose job it is to keep the birds honest - the bobcat.

    Dang non-native cats coming and taking our bobcat's jobs!

  8. Unleash the Pelicans now. The time for repentance has passed.

  9. Awesome post. I need a pelican in my backyard to deal with the neighborhood cats.

  10. Don't forget that cats harbor and spread Toxoplasmosis. We're just starting to learn of the extent of the damage undiagnosed Toxoplasmosis is causing.

  11. Thanks for such an entertaining, erudite post about why cats should stay indoors. I am glad Senor Anonymous brought up Toxoplasmosis- people who refuse to acknowledge the fact that cats are introduced predators might at least take note of a parasite that affects their health and changes their behavior! On another note, I dont see near as many feral or outdoor cats in Costa Rica as I do in the USA. Food isnt left out for them and they seem to only come out at night, likely due to the widespread presence of free ranging dogs.

  12. I'm an avid birder residing in Okinawa, Japan where mongoose, wild pigs and an explosion of feral cats are impacting the native fauna and flora.

  13. About half of the time, birdkill by cats is opportunistic; they do it not for food but for fun...