UPDATE: My book, (Catwoods, Volume 1) referred to later in this essay, is now available (click the link at the upper right for more info). It has an entire chapter devoted to the subject of cats and birds. It is even more deeply researched and I expand on careful and commonsense thought about the topic. In addition, I am thinking of writing another photo essay on birds and cats for this website with research and thought that has occurred since the publication of the book in July, 2019. So stay tuned!
We can see more sky now. There’s a sundog, a light wash of refracted color, in the first photo. We have known one neighborhood a long time. Our late elders moved here, first my Mom, my husband’s parents later. The two households had adjoining yards. We visited with them, watching the fauna. The entire city had a canopy of tall trees; on our block we had oaks, pines, pecans, and a magnolia.
Chirps, tweets, screes, and woodpecker taps sounded from the trees. Glimpses of the singers and tappers flashed high up in the branches, and mockingbirds flitted in the low shrubbery; the yards were always fluttering with birds. Squirrels and chipmunks scrambled everywhere. The bird feeder on the porch at my in-laws’ house stayed busy. Birds and small animals flourished, with cats walking around. I’ve always loved birds and cats and trees.
We saw owned cats roaming, or sitting in their yards, friendly abandoned strays, skittish ferals. Mom began taking in strays and ferals, making them indoor cats. We rehomed the overflow when Mom had enough kitties in house. My husband’s father took in Bud, the cat that now edits for me; Mom took in Bud’s feral momcat Anna, who is pictured in other posts on this website.
Still, more cats came. We’d taken in all the unowned friendly ones; owned friendly and feral standoffish kitties were always coming and going. After a few years a neighbor moved in down the street and started TNRing the ferals. Elder care eventually took over our time so we could no longer tame and place cats in homes. Outside cats walked up to the door to peer through the screen at Mom’s cats, and jumped her back fence to sniff her yard. The birds and small animals thrived. We lived there awhile, observing animal life “in the field”, every day. The city also had occasional hawks, owls, raccoons, and possums.
What did flat-line the populations of our charming wild fauna? The EF4 tornado of 2011. Instant deforestation. The tall trees around us all fell. Forest became prairie. One extremely battered pecan tree stood, and revived. Smaller understory trees, along with brushy vegetation, were blasted and scrubbed down, too. A few red tips and mimosas survived. I don’t know if birds were killed or if they knew to fly elsewhere.
Our decision to rebuild meant we stayed present in the half-mile wide track of flat. From our corner of the earth, we saw first-hand what deforestation does. Squirrels and chipmunks and most songbirds were gone. The geese from the lake increased, eating well from the grassy ground. Mice and rat numbers also soared. We saw only a few mockingbirds at first. Deforestation, sudden, natural, instantly witnessed, was the culprit. Human-caused deforestation is in my estimation, the biggest factor in species declines world-wide.
Feral cats were largely unseen for a long time. We saw some dart into the storm drains. They might have hidden amidst the debris, from all the noisy humans and machinery in the streets. Some may have fled the hit zones. Total disruption of neighborhood routine no doubt made them feel unsettled. A tabby cat stopped by we couldn’t approach. We got a quick photo, but he never came back. Cats had been left behind when owners fled wrecked houses that day. Volunteers, and a neighbor a few blocks away quickly began to help with lost, stray, and feral felines. Owners were located when possible, strays were taken in; when the scarce ferals did come back around, they were kept fed.
All remaining trees slowly grew higher, the lone pecan, the smaller “understory” trees, mimosas, red tips; the fig tree we’d had to trim back so we had a path to clear debris, grew tall. Over the last few years the birds have started coming back to the neighborhood! We hear birdsong again. Squirrels are slowly returning as the pecan tree resumes making pecans.
I love blackbirds! I once wrote an article about grackles that was published by a nature journal.
Coming back, but still shadows of former vegetation, they carry on:
We also have these guys or gals. Maybe three or four ferals, not sure how many lovely cats are out there. We hope to take them all inside one day; you have to start the taming by feeding them. The birds came back stronger when the trees gained altitude. They came to a neighborhood that’s never been without a few outdoor kitties. The birds flourished over the 2016 summer, with the cats there.
I’ve been watching and studying the dynamics of birds, cats, and other animals for many years. I’ve read widely about the fauna in the forest and city, and I know who eats birds and bird eggs. There’s a chapter about this in my book, now available (click link at upper right for more info); there will be more of my comparative studies of both small ecosystems in which I’ve lived. I also studied toxoplasmosis and rabies carefully. Volume 2 of my book will have expanded research and thought about those two zoonotic diseases. Hopefully that volume will be out next year.
Y’all can imagine just what I think about the book “Cat Wars” by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella. I’ll only read it if the library gets it, I won’t support that. All of those studies saying cats kill such and such a number of birds are estimates, extrapolations, speculations. Unsound, imprecise science, to me. Raptors are protected species; some snatch small birds right out of the air. Other birds prey on bird eggs and nestlings. A study of how many birds are taken by other birds would be hard to nail down because the raiding raptors fly off; crow and jay predation takes place in nests high in trees. Public awareness of these incidents may be low because so many take place aloft, and/or shielded by leaves from human witnesses. We no longer talk about the gruesome side of avian activity! No online “buzz”, no “tweets”; though I expect if we could interpret realworld tweets (by birds), we’d find complaints about those freakin’ hawks! I’m also betting any accurate figure of birds taken by birds would be higher than the ‘birds taken by cats’ estimates.
In a variety of places we’ve lived, whenever cats have been few or absent, we’ve seen a spike in rodent numbers. No real surprise there. Rat and mice populations will soar if outdoor cats are ever killed off. Rats are also raiders of bird nests. Where neighborhoods have been leveled, meaning no more cat owners and their cats, rodents have shown up in homes bordering the cleared ground.
I love birds too. Deforestation and habitat loss are the real causes of declining bird numbers, along with other complex human-caused factors. There’s even human destruction of birds in many places for various reasons, one of which is crop consumption, as described in an article in the New York Times, America’s Wildlife Body Count, by Richard Conniff, September 17, 2016. I had trouble posting the link here within the text but it can be looked up. Or check out the first comment below where the link is posted.
ETA two months after I first posted, here’s an example of a bird kill by humans:
(Sorry, this link can no longer be found; that happens often on the Internet.)
I have to ask, why would my conclusions about various neighborhoods be dismissed as anecdotal evidence? I don’t have a degree in science but I’ve been reading and watching thoughtfully, for a long ole time. In essence, I’m out doing field work in two locations. Ornithologists make use of birds counts by amateurs, so why would my seasoned observations not be taken seriously?
Click to access birder-and-the-robot-power-and-knowledge-making-in-ornithology.pdf
West Nile Virus almost killed my husband a few years back. Birds are the major reservoir host. Mosquitoes vector the disease to humans, and are also reservoir hosts, but they acquire the infection from birds.
West Nile is a growing human health threat. Yet we’re not calling for the eradication of all free-flying birds. How horrible that sounds! Say it about all free-roaming cats, and it’s just as chilling.
The complex and IMO incompletely understood and described disease toxoplasmosis often gets tossed into any anti-outdoor-cat discussion without qualification. One fact is, it’s found in mammals other than cats, and in birds:
Cats are easy targets for the convenient blame-another-species approach to saving species. There’s bias at work here. And as much as I always worried about cats, my own indoor cats who may slip out and behave like ferals if captured, my ferals, the cats belonging to others, now I have increased anxiety. I fear that even more antipathy towards kitties may have been awakened by this misplaced blame. Bird advocates need to look at and study big picture dynamics of the natural world – who eats what or whom – along with in-depth study of diseases. Only complete understanding will lead to creating workable advantages for species in decline. People are influenced by what they read online; they need to examine and research extensively. Science reaches knowledge through a multitude of studies, not just a few. Everyone needs to take real and thoughtful notice of what’s going on around them every day. One of the best possible scenarios is when bird groups and cat groups work together. Talking together is best. That’s happened in some places, I hope it spreads and continues.
From Peter J. Wolf on Vox Felina, here’s a well thought out, research-heavy refutation of the book “Cat Wars”.
Link to complete storm story:
Link to return of cats to tornado zone story:
Yes, the editor of this piece is a cat but he’s fair-minded and understands that in any scientific investigation, you must gather evidence carefully before you draw and apply far-reaching conclusions. As you can see, this topic doesn’t sit well, he has a look of concern. (In actuality, he heard something outside when the picture was snapped.)
Great post! I loved the photos The storyline of life after the tornado was fascinating. More people who have never experienced a tornado especially, should read this information. How many years did it take for things to be normal again? I had no idea of the struggle between cat and bird groups. Very interesting. Cats are like tigers and cats and are carnivorous. People don’t try to stop lions from eating baby animals. Why should they try to stop cats from following their instincts and doing the same thing. I can understand rare bird enthusiasts being concerned but what could they do? This was really interesting and thought provoking.
Thank you, I’m glad you liked the post! It has been about 5 years since the tornado and for us, we are not yet back to normal! Indeed, there is a big kerfluffle between cat advocates and bird advocates and it is sometimes bitter. Part of the birder rationale is that cats aren’t native here, or in other areas where this conflict is going on. That makes no sense to me since none of us are either, in fact, it’s the nature of species in the natural world to migrate and move around. You can’t return the earth to an arbitrarily selected slice of time, you can only try to cut back on pollutants and improve chances in the future for a healthy and biodiverse Earth. I too want to save rare and endangered species but not by killing one species to save another. I found it interesting that several persons reporting their cat/bird observations in the comments had similar conclusions to mine. Just today I read this which is an excellent encapsulation of some of the issues, if you’d like to read it. (It’s lengthy so I understand if you don’t): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/an-open-letter-to-the-cornell-lab-of-ornithology_us_58504501e4b0016e504307ae
All good wishes!
I agree with you completely. (I live in Portland, Oregon.)
Mollie, thank you for commenting. I have found, as I suspected, that persons from many places, other nations also, report experiences similar to mine. Sure wish these researchers would listen to us !
Great post and covers so many points I’ll have to read it again. I started listening to a radio talk, a couple of weeks ago, with one of the cat wars writers and had to turn it off. All that vilification of cats has been going on for decades in Australia. And still goes on. You’d think the place would be awash with cats with the so called scientific statistics of the number of cats. I was there recently and only saw one cat, out in the streets, for the six weeks I was staying in the suburbs of Melbourne.
Sue, thank you so much for your kind words and for adding your experiences here. I find direct, on the scene observations to be so much more telling than the present studies! Sad that public opinion is being swayed and the image of cats is being distorted!
I think you and I have discussed this before but I agree that cats are not the main culprit in bird deaths, humans are. Deforestation, as you say, plus automobiles, reflective glass buildings, wind turbines, all sorts of things WE cause. And, of course, raptors take their share but birders are not concerned with raptors since that is the “circle of life.” With my current 10 or so outdoor cats (3 belonging to neighbors), I have about 3 bird deaths per year. Most of the cats just glance up from their naps at a bird hopping by. Every great once in awhile, one goes after a bird and I always feel horrible but ours are all well-fed and pretty lazy. I also felt bad when I saw a Kestrel eating a Yellow-rumped Warbler a few weeks ago even though that’s “nature.” We do feed birds in our yard but I don’t feed seed because a bunch of birds on the ground eating fallen seed might be too much of a temptation. I feed suet and oranges so there isn’t too much “droppage.” None of our cats seem to be tree climbers so birds in trees are pretty safe around here. I just wish everyone, human and animal, was a vegetarian (like me).
We did indeed discuss this before, Candace, when Budcat and I had a conversation about the subject. 🙂 Your experience is interesting and very telling, more or less matches mine, and is the sort of “anecdotal evidence” that some might dismiss. But it’s exactly the kind of on the scene data that I find more compelling than broadly based studies. Unfortunately we don’t have the kind of free time at the moment to maintain a bird feeder. Loved your bird photos today! Good for you being vegetarian! I am by necessity due to medical limitations but I’d choose that if I had the choice! And, further thoughts, what you say about the ‘part of nature’ distinction set aside for raptors, but not cats, is very true!
I’m glad you liked the post, Claudia; I hesitated to jump into the controversy, but had strong feelings about it all. I love the natural sounds too, cicadas and katydids … and meows, of course! Thank you for your encouraging words about nature coming back, we are seeing new growth and slowly, things do bounce back. Cats do have a way of quickly moving into supervisory positions! And they are ever so helpful! 🙂
A very honest and fulfulling post. I love the sounds of nature..so loud at times, almost louder than city traffic. Im sorry the tornado wiped out so much nature. But nature is strong..give it time and it will retake what it lost and more. I have 2 cats – no feral – and they have a say in everything I do too!
Thank you for the interesting info. We like to feed birds in our backyard, and we’ve definitely had a problem with free-roaming cats over the years trying to hunt for the birds. We usually try to chase them away. Definitely would not want to outlaw all free-roaming cats or anything like that, just wish our neighbors took better care/kept better track of them.
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, eurobrat! We haven’t been able to maintain bird feeders for many years, but I understand about the free-roaming cats. We do keep our cats indoors except for the ferals, who we try to tame and bring inside when we can. That’s safer for both cats and wildlife. I’ve read that placing orange or lemon peels around yards, or using non-toxic citrus spray, will repel cats. There is probably a lot of info about this on Internet. We haven’t tried it so I can’t attest to its effectiveness. I also understand it may not be practical for everyone. Thank you for commenting!
Oooh, that’s a good tip about the orange/lemon peels! I will see if I can research that some more. We are obviously looking for ways to keep cats away that are not harmful to the cats 🙂
Well we’re glad things are gettin’ back to normal fur ya’ll. We so hate peeps blamin’ cats fur all those bird deaths. Birdies aren’t even da top of da prey list fur kitties. And da last time we checked, we cats can’t fly. We aren’t aware of da book you mentioned, but we wouldn’t be readin’ it anyways. And we’re glad you’re coverin’ rabies and toxoplsmosis. We’re sure you’ll be truthful and accurate. Luv da fotos. Big hugs fur all. Have a pawsum weekend. We’re havin’ trouble leavin’ comments. They’re not showin’ up. So ifin you suddenly have 5 from us, we’re so sorry.
Dezi and Raena
Thank you for your comment, Deziz and Raena! Glad I was able to retrieve it. Also glad you liked the post and you agree about the kitties!
Fank you fur lookin’ fur it. Sorry there’s so many. MOL And yes, we get so tired of takin’ da blame fur somethin’ dat humans are doin’ to themselves.
Dezi and Raena
I don’t understand tumbleweedstumbling’s statement “belief has no place in science.” I think she may be confusing scientific belief with spiritual belief. “Belief” is merely trust, faith, or confidence in something. Ninety-seven percent of international climate scientists “believe” that human-initiated climate change is real. They’ve examined the data – over many decades now – and they have trust, faith, and confidence that climate change is a man-made and serious threat to the planet.
Also, I’m not sure about windmills being “huge” killers of birds, bats, and butterflies. I haven’t seen any data. I do know that there will always be victims when change occurs, but one has to decide what the greater evil is. The fuel industry warned that outlawing leaded gasoline would be economically catastrophic. It wasn’t. And we’re a lot healthier because of the ban.
Lastly, fighting climate change is not the opposite of fighting pollution. It’s only the opposite if an intended solution (like diesel fuel) PRODUCES pollution. Windmills may kill a few birds and butterflies (again, no data). But they are not polluters. And most climate scientists agree they’re a worthy alternative to fossil fuels.
Thank you greenpete, you and I are in agreement on these issues. I feel there may have been a misunderstanding about the word “believe”, that may even be regional – not sure about that – but to me it’s interchangeable with “I think” or “I conclude”. And although I’ve only lightly perused the literature on climate change myself, and I’m not a scientist, my husband is a scientist. Completely agree with you about reducing pollution and reducing carbon emissions being common and compatible goals. I know there may be a variety of opinions and don’t wish to end discussion, which can be beneficial, but I’m just not up to it myself on a lengthy basis at this time. Again, thank you for insights!
Thanks for the kind words about my cat observations! As for climate change, because I have limitations on my energy due to illness, I don’t really have the time to research extensively; I just wanted to clarify my position. When I used the word “believe” I meant “have concluded through looking at credible sources”; I understand what you are saying about science not being belief. I also understand that opinions about climate change vary. That’s interesting about Britain: diesel would not have been my choice of an alternative fuel. I still think that further research will eventually turn up energy sources and techniques that will reduce both carbon emissions and other forms of pollution.
Whenever people in places of authority are making money on something and bad stuff happens, they need to find a scape goat to blame. Deforestation is a big money maker. So it using our tax money to pay for windmills in the name of reducing carbon to prevent climate change which is yet one more “based entirely on extrapolation” concept. Windmills and deforestation are huge bird killers. They are also bat killers and butterfly kills. But if we can blame it on cats instead then the people in power can continue making money.
I certainly agree that money is driving development and deforestation, tumbleweedstumbling. I had heard that birds are killed by windmills, but I can’t claim to know much about it as I haven’t looked into that. I have to say that I do believe climate change is real and actual, and it is necessary to investigate alternative energy sources and industrial practices that cause the least pollution in every way. It’s a complicated problem that needs wide-ranging study; I don’t believe that blaming cats, and/or killing off one species to save another, is a wise approach.
I am a scientist by training. I don’t believe in climate change because belief has no place in science. I examine the evidence and decided based on that. You have made a common stated error. “It is necessary to investigate alternative energy sources and industrial practices that cause the least pollution in every way”. Fighting climate change is the opposite of fighting air pollution. Fighting climate change means reducing carbon dioxide. Take Great Britain. They have replaced most of their gasoline cars with diesel cars because diesel cars produce less carbon dioxide, even though diesel cars produce far more particulate matter and air pollutants like nitrogen oxide, and airborne benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde. Air pollution is far worse in Britain now. People are literally dropping dead because of increased diesel pollution. But their carbon dioxide emissions are down. They are fighting climate change by accepting pollution not less. I could give you dozens of more examples of this insanity. But this is not the place to debate climate change. I love my cat. Please keep up the great cat observation work.
What a marvellous post. I have seen a decline in cat numbers in my neighbourhood in recent years and a massive rise in rats, large ones, which my one lone young cat does her best to keep in check. I have also personally rescued fledgling blackbirds and song thrushes from magpies who want to eat them and I have seen raptors swoop into my garden to take little tits and sparrows. All part of nature’s rich tapestry. I worry about some of the anti cat propaganda that’s emerging in recent years, it’s like the middle age witch hunts.
I’m happy you liked the post, Rosie! Your experience with the fewer cats meaning more rats matches mine exactly. Also the predation of birds upon other birds, although I’ve only read about it, never actually observed it. Nature is so majestic but sometimes difficult to endure! I too worry about the anti-cat stuff that’s going around, it indeed feels like the middle ages as you say!
I have seen corvids and raptors attack smaller birds a number of times and friends with bird feeding tables have seen Sparrowhawks take feeding birds. The have also been a pair of Peregrine Falcons in the city who take pigeons. It’s quite common. My cats are quite scared of magpies who sit on our roof and throw stones at them 😁
Thank you for telling me those first-hand stories! We’ve been too busy to maintain a bird feeder for a long time, so I forgot, people with bird feeders do see birds preying on birds! Since we live in a forested space the birds have lots of cover, but we have crows around sometimes, and occasionally and see them gliding high above. The birds do get quiet when they hear the hawk’s cries. There are magpies in the western part of the country but not where we are. Yikes, I think I’d be scared of them too!
We don’t have birds like those either! Beautiful
Happy you enjoyed seeing some of our birds, Juan. They are beautiful but so hard to photograph, they move even more than cats do, LOL! I’m not familiar with birds in the west but I think there are some pretty ones there, like Anna’s Hummingbirds and maybe a few other hummingbird varieties. We only have the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds.
I like birds but it’s weird, on the west coast we have crows and pigeons and other non colorful birds.
I like crows, they are very smart birds, but certainly not colorful. I also like pigeons and have seen and heard large gatherings of them in cities. I would like to see some Painted Buntings around, but we’re out of their very limited range. There are some really colorful birds in other countries, it would be nice to have a few here!
We only have bluejays here… In SF they have a flock of parrots on telegraph hill
We used to have blue jays and I’m sure we still do, but now I rarely see one. We used to have a bird feeder set up but have been too busy to maintain one for years. Wow, parrots! That would be a sight to see!
Yes, there’s a movie about how they got there. There are at least 100. I don’t know the story but I’ve seen them…
We don’t have those kind of plants around here!
Oh yes, Juan, we have some pretty plants here, glad you enjoyed them! I was never in the west long enough to really learn what kind of plants are there. Giant redwoods are farther south in CA I think. I recall some eucalyptus, I think. Our forests are beautiful here but don’t have beautiful birches like New England does.