DO THIS, NOT THAT – Protecting Birds from Cats.

Scientists estimate that domestic cats kill 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. every year (billion–that is not a typo!). *Much of the carnage comes from feral cats, but pet cats that are allowed to roam outdoors do plenty of killing too. In fact, after habitat loss, cats are the biggest threat to America’s wild birds. (And after the cats, the next biggest danger is our windows. Notice that humans have introduced all three of these huge threats.)

Sometimes a pet cat will bring a bird it killed to a front doorstep as a weird, un-wished for offering to their beloved humans, but often we cat owners have no idea that our cats are doing such damage. A fatally ambushed bird is simply left under a bush, or behind a shed. The cats are not at all to blame!—they’re only doing what their natural instincts tell them to. We humans are the ones who’ve introduced domestic cats to environments where, if allowed outdoors, they are invasive and exceedingly dangerous predators. The deadly power of domestic cats rightly inspires awe—they are such extraordinarily lithe, focused, and athletic creatures—but also, on behalf of our treasured bird life, alarm. Out of respect both for our cats’ supple, clever skill as predators and for how hard it is, even in the best of circumstances, for a wild bird to survive, we should keep cats and birds apart.

It’s really not so hard to love your cat and love your neighborhood’s birds at the same time. Here’s how:

Keep your cat indoors at all times Optimal for birds and for protecting cats from cars, disease, and fights with other cats or wild animals. WIN-WIN!!
If your cat does go outdoors, supervise it in a confined area (a “cat porch”), or on a leash. A cat outdoors for even just a few minutes will go hunting. If access to your favorite hobby was limited to just a few minutes, wouldn’t you rush to do it if you got the chance?
If your cat won’t tolerate indoor life (or an allergic family member can’t tolerate the cat), give cat a brightly colored collar with a bell. A bell and a bright collar warn birds of a cat’s movements. A land-based animal kills a flying creature by surprising it. So make your cat into a walking melody with a colorful costume— not a stalking enemy bringing deep doom.
If your cat truly can’t be inside, keep its claws trimmed—especially on its front paws. It’s harder for cats to climb trees or snatch wild birds with trimmed claws. Trimmed claws also mean your cat will cause less damage to your furniture and your skin!
If your cat begs to go outdoors, don’t let it go out in the early morning or late afternoon. These are peak meal times for birds, when they’re distracted and less attentive to predators (just as great food distracts you from what your Aunt Millie says at Thanksgiving dinner).
Report feral cats to an animal shelter for capture and population control. Never feed feral cats; it won’t reduce their hunting, which they do instinctively whether they’re hungry or not. Feral cats that are spayed or neutered, and if possible adopted, won’t add to their own numbers by breeding. From the birds’ point of view, reducing the population of feral cats is a massively humane thing to do.
Donate to shelters that control feral cat populations humanely. This is a true act of kindness to cats, birds, and people. Who would want to live without birdsong outdoors?
If your cat has kittens, be sure they are spayed or neutered and adopted by responsible families. Never release them to the wild, anywhere, ever! If people love cats, why would they release them to the tough life of the wild? And why would anyone subject birds to their terrible claws?
Protect birds from cats that wander into your yard by placing feeders at least 5 feet away from cat hiding places such as shrubs. 12 feet is even better. Cats can jump far, and a cat on the hunt will stay so still and quiet under a bush that birds might not notice it.
If you install a bird feeder on a pole, choose a metal one. Or install a baffle. Cats’ claws can’t grip a metal pole, and a baffle will block access to the feeder.
Keep nest boxes at least 8 feet off the ground and away from cat hiding places. Choose boxes with steep roofs and nowhere for a predator to sit. Keeping the home of nesting birds up and away from predators is the equivalent of keeping your own home away from a war zone.
Put a decorative or wire fence in front of bushes and hedges. This kind of decoration can really help! It makes it harder for a cat to jump from the bushes to a bird on your lawn.
Plant native bushes with thorns. In Pennsylvania, good choices are American red raspberries (Rubus strigosus) and Allegheny blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis). Cats don’t like thorns, which is exactly why nesting birds do like them. Plus you and the birds can share the fruit!
Refrain from using lethal traps or poisons to reduce the cat population. Lethal traps are cruel, will make your neighbors hate you, and may be illegal where you live. Poison not only has those three strikes against it, it can also be toxic to other animals, including scavengers that might eat the dead cat.
Gently let your friends, colleagues and neighbors know about best practices for the relationship between cats and wild birds. Gentle persuasion can be more effective than you think! Sometimes people aren’t aware of the problem, or they think that dealing with the cat-and-bird problem means we are anti-cat. Bird lovers know that protecting wild birds also greatly benefits cats that are kept safe and loved indoors.

Christine Du Bois – Buxbaum, Ph.D., Lansdowne Bird Town Coordinator of the Lansdowne Bird Town.

* Source: Loss, S.R., Tom Wil, and Peter P. Marra. 2013. “The Impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States.” Nature Communications. January 29.

Image Credits:

“The domestic cat; bird killer, mouser and destroyer of wild life; means of utilizing and controlling it,” by Edward Howe Forbush. 1916. Public domain.

“Domestic Short-haired in Nature,” by Pkeats16, licensed under CC BY SA-4.0