Cats & Songbirds

Each year, millions of songbirds are killed by roaming cats. Here’s how to keep your kitty from adding to the statistics.

Cats are hardwired to hunt. Just move a laser light across the floor and watch your kitty skillfully stalk, pounce and jump on it. Outdoor cats do the same, except their quarry includes rodents, insects, and birds. Unfortunately, cats don’t differentiate between those pesky mice nesting under your deck, and the songbirds visiting your garden. And that’s a problem, because many species of songbird are already in serious decline, thanks to habitat loss, pesticide use, and other factors. In this article, we’ll look at how you can protect local songbirds from your kitty’s natural need to hunt.

WHY DO CATS CHASE BIRDS?

You may wonder why your cat insists on chasing and catching wild songbirds when she’s already well-fed at home. But hunger isn’t the only motivation for hunting. Some experts say cats hunt because they are bored, while others say they do it for stimulation. While these factors may certainly play a part, the bottom line is that cats are predators, and the hunting instinct is simply part of their DNA. Their wild ancestors had to hunt for their food, and this basic need is still a part of our household cats’ makeup, even when they already get plenty to eat.

WHY WORRY WHEN YOUR CAT HUNTS SONGBIRDS?

Many people think the odd dead songbird is harmless. But statistics show that even one kitty, if allowed free rein outdoors, contributes to what amounts to a devastating loss of bird life. According to the American Bird Conservancy, over a billion birds are caught by cats each year in the US alone, even though a 2021 study by the Nottingham Trent University found that 63% of domestic cats in the country are kept entirely indoors.

HOW DO WE FIX THE PROBLEM?

Cats killing songbirds isn’t just a North American problem. Australia and Iceland, for example, are also faced with a similar depletion in their bird species. Certain territories in Australia, and some Icelandic towns, have chosen to tackle the issue by introducing a cat curfew that varies between the hours of 8 pm to 7 am, during which no domestic cat is allowed outdoors.

While this solution is unlikely to be adopted here, there are lots of other ways to prevent your cat from hunting and killing songbirds:

The most obvious is to keep your cat indoors, as advocated by the ASPCA and other animal welfare organizations. Not only does this prevent your cat from killing songbirds and other wildlife, but it also keeps her safe from dangers such as road accidents, larger predators, and infectious diseases.

If you’re among those cat parents who want to give their kitties the freedom to go outside, while also finding a way to protect songbirds, there are several methods to consider.

Some suggest putting bell collars on cats to scare away birds, although others caution the bell may not be loud enough to be effective, and may also pose a risk to the cat because the sound can alert larger predators to her location. However, a study carried out in the UK demonstrated that a bell collar reduces a cat’s hunting success by 40%, without posing any danger to the cat. The study further showed that an electronic sonic device on a cat’s collar decreased hunting success by up to 50%. If you decide to go this route, be sure to get a breakaway collar in case your cat gets caught on something during her travels. Keep in mind, however, that some cats learn how to suppress the sound of their bells when they’re stalking prey!

One interesting possible solution was devised by Ken Otter, a biologist at the University of Northern British Columbia. In an initial study involving 14 cats, he used high-visibility rainbow-colored collars that resembled ruffs. The vivid colors caught the four color-sensing receptors in birds’ eyes, alerting them to impending danger and prompting them to fly away unharmed. You might try making a ruff collar from rainbow-colored fabric, but again, be sure it will come apart easily if your cat gets it snagged on something.

Another alternative is to train your cat to go outside on a leash and harness. This is best done when the cat is still a kitten — adult cats don’t usually adapt well to wearing a harness. Make sure the harness fits well, so she can’t wriggle out of it. It’s also imperative that you go outside with your cat and supervise her while she’s on the leash. Never tether her in the yard alone, as she could get tangled up in the lead, attacked by another animal — or catch a songbird that alights within her reach.

The American Veterinary Medical Association believes the best solution is to compromise by investing in a cat enclosure or catio. These popular options allow cats to enjoy the outdoors while staying safe, contained, and separated from the songbirds flitting around your yard. They can range from a simple window enclosure to a spacious wonderland featuring various levels, foliage, and walkways.

Cats hunt more than songbirds

A study done by the University of Georgia, in conjunction with the National Geographic Society’s Crittercam Program, was designed to find out what cats really hunt when outdoors. The researchers strapped crittercams onto several domestic cats, then let them out. The subsequent footage showed that the cats killed a wide range of wildlife, including chipmunks, frogs, lizards, voles, small snakes — and, of course, birds

A CAT’S PERSONALITY CAN AFFECT HIS HUNTING BEHAVIOR

Feline hunting behaviors may depend on the personality of the individual cat, according to a recent study conducted at the Université Paris-Saclay in France.

My own experience backs this up. I had a cat named Tigger who wasn’t overly excited by the presence of birds. He would just sit curled up by the window, chattering to the birds on the lawn outside. But my other cat, Cici, would often drop a live bird on the living room carpet, and then proceed to leap in the air and clutch at the curtains in an attempt to catch it as it frantically tried to escape. Both cats had very different personalities when it came to hunting,

You might not be able to do much about the bigger issues impacting songbird populations, but preventing your cat from hunting and killing the birds in your own yard is one important way to help our feathered friends.

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