Predation by domestic cats is the No. 1 human-caused threat to birds in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S. alone, outdoor cats
kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. Although this number may seem unbelievable, it represents the combined
impact of tens of millions of outdoor cats.
By Steve Betchkal
I belong to a popular city-wide neighborhood chat group here in Eau Claire called Nextdoor. The group posts can range from requests for help with home repairs or snow removal, to dining suggestions or alerts about porch piracy. Quite useful on the local level. The following posts are a common theme:
Hello, I live on North Dewey St. There was just a grey cat hanging out outside my place. Friendly. Green collar/pendant maybe?
Hello! Is anyone missing a black cat or has a black cat that is allowed to roam outside at night? A super friendly and affectionate black cat started showing up at my house about a week ago and I just want to make sure it has a home to go to, especially now that it's getting cold. Thank you! :)
Our sweet fat cat, Lucy, got out today. She's white with black spots and a black tail. We live on Nimitz Street. Please reach out if you see her! We are very worried. Thank you!
Large black and white cat comes to our area late in the afternoon to our bird feeders. It is jumping up trying to catch birds and stalking them on the ground. Please keep your cat indoors. We will call animal control or try to catch it ourselves and bring to Humane Society where you will pay a fine to get your pet back. Please keep your cats inside.
Found this cat last night and trying to locate the owner.
It is not uncommon to see a couple of these posts a week, even during the coldest part of winter. And it’s disconcerting for many reasons.
If you’re a pet owner, your beloved pet is AWOL. If you like cats and dogs, you feel for the animal. If you’re a birder, you know this means serious trouble for wild birds. According to the American Birding Association (ABA) there are more than 100 million cats in the United States, and those cats kill around 2.4 billion birds each year, “making cat predation by far the largest source of direct human-caused mortality to birds.”
A Gallup Poll of national pet owners found that 29% of all U.S. households own at least one cat, and that there are 95.6 million house cats in the states. Apply those percentages to the 65,000 people living in Eau Claire, and you get more than 18,000 possible cats. Petkeen.com claims that the average housecat kills two wild animals per week. That’s more than 100 a year, and the 18,000 house cats in Eau Claire times 100 killed birds per year equals 1.8 million. Now extrapolate those numbers to every community in the state of Wisconsin.
If the numbers begin to shock you, they should. Wild bird populations are being squeezed between collisions with human-made structures and people who allow their house cats to roam free out-of-doors. For birds, cats that are let-out-of-doors are the Scylla and Charybdis of nature.
Why, you might ask, do people allow their cats to roam free? It really doesn’t make much logical sense. A housecat that is kept indoors is provided a safe environment free of coyotes, Great Horned Owls, dogs, motorized vehicles, mange, ticks and fleas. If you truly love your pet, why would you expose it to such dangers?
The disturbing answer is threefold 1. Pet owners don’t realize how turning cats loose out-of-doors affects wild birds.2. They don’t care. Or, 3. The housecat is calling the shots. I’ve met far too many people who tell me that “their cat wants so badly to go outside,” and they just can’t say no.... To a cat.
My neighbor Pete owns a cat. I like Pete. We get along as friends and neighbors. I also like his cat, Pepper. Pepper is a handsome tabby, and actually Pete’s second cat now. Soon after Pete acquired his first cat, Clifford, we conversed about the impact that cats let outside by their owners have upon wildlife. Ever since, Pete, who is a master gardener, does allow Pepper to go outside --- while tethered to a leash in the center of his large yard.
Pepper is only allowed out on the lawn during daylight, and he can’t reach the vegetation at the edges of the property. But here’s the amazing fact: In 2021, Pepper the Housecat killed (and often ate) a total of 37 wild rabbits that he captured. While leashed!
Wild cats originated in Africa. They were imported into the Western Hemisphere with the arrival of European settlers. Cats are an introduced exotic, and wild birds simply have no defense against them. Declawing doesn’t help. Bells don’t help. Cats are superior predators, and wild birds simply don’t stand a chance.
I have, incidentally, used Nextdoor as an educational tool. When my neighbors post about lost cats I often drop a note mentioning some of the facts listed here. At first I got the standard “cat hater” responses, despite the fact that I, too, am a cat owner. However, when I continued to respond calmly and factually and persistently, those types of messages disappeared and were replaced in turn with inquiries and more civil discussions. One neighbor, at first defensive and resistant, has since built a screened and enclosed “catio” for her pet, which allows it to access the “outdoors” without accessibility to wildlife.
This is what she contributed to a recent discussion: “Basically what I am trying to get at is, I never thought it would be possible for this cat to be an indoor cat and he is actually thriving. It just takes patience and some creativity.” As a pet owner, she modified her behavior, by choice, and she feels good about it.
There are many things we can do to help wild birds; plant and landscape for them, vote for conservation measures that protect them, address Climate Crisis (perhaps, in the long view, the most critical issue facing wild birds worldwide), reduce the use of glyphosates and neonicotinoids.
But one of the most immediate and important things we as birders can do for the birds that we love is educate our friends and neighbors about the hazards of letting house cats leave home. Birds may be helpless against cats, but we don’t have to be.
The American Bird Conservancy offers a wide range of information on the problem and a range of solutions:
About the author
Steve Betchkal is vice president of Gaylord Nelson Audubon, producer of WSO’s “Bird TV” (https://wsobirds.org/bird-tv) and currently is the content editor for an updated online edition of Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts.
In his 30 years as a professional journalist, he produced 11,000 TV stories, and is the only journalist in Chippewa Valley history to win five Emmys and an Edward R. Murrow Award.
He is the author of eight books, and in 2017 he worked in the Galápagos for Lindblad-National Geographic.