By Tracy Brighten
Cat predation is wreaking havoc on wildlife, but an open-air safe haven for domestic cats and a collar that warns birds could be the purr-fect solution
I’ve written in the past about the threat to wildlife from domestic cats and owners’ reluctance to accept their cat might be involved. While exact prey numbers are difficult to determine, camera traps show that small mammal and bird populations are threatened in areas with high-density cat populations.
Fortunately, there are a number of options that benefit domestic cats as well as wildlife.
Cat curfew reduces predation opportunity
The best way to keep wildlife safe from predation is to keep domestic cats indoors from one hour before dusk to one hour after dawn when birds are most vulnerable, and also during the breeding season when chicks and fledglings are easy prey. Birds are also more at risk in winter when food is scarce and birds spend more time foraging out in the open.
Keeping domestic cats indoors protects cats too. Free-roaming domestic cats are at risk of disease as well as injury and death from cat fights, animal abusers, traffic accidents, poisonous plants and pesticides. In the US, research shows cats are also killed by coyotes.
Catios: where cool cats hang out
For owners who want to let their cat outdoors, more cats are enjoying spaces that keep them safe and give them freedom without affecting people’s freedom to enjoy wildlife.
The catio can be a mesh-covered space either adjacent to the house or free-standing with or without a linking tunnel. You can find ideas to excite you and your cat here and a self-build story here! Alternatively, a catio can be a section of garden enclosed by a cat-proof fence. To cat-proof existing fences or to build a cat-proof fence, Purrfect Fence systems in the US, or Protectapet in the UK have options. An investment in keeping your cat safe could also save you money on vet fees.
Jazzy collar looks stylish and warns songbirds
If a catio isn’t practical, Nancy Brennan’s Birdsbesafe invention makes roaming cats highly visible to birds. The cover slips over a quick release collar and the bright-coloured patterned fabric is visible to songbirds even in low light.
St. Lawrence University’s study, published in the Global Ecology and Conservation journal, tested the effectiveness of the Birdsbesafe collar in reducing bird and mammal deaths from predation.
Led by avian ecologist and cat owner Dr Susan Willson, the study involved domestic cats in New York. Cats were tested wearing the collar in the autumn and the following spring. Although the study sample was small, the results suggest the collar is highly effective in decreasing predation on birds, especially in spring.
Cat owner apathy puts wildlife at risk
Disappointingly, cat owner response didn’t match the promising results of the study, says The Audubon Society. Only 19 of the 54 owners who participated in the autumn took part again in spring. Over 80 per cent of owners in the study said they wouldn’t use the collar again due to personal taste and their perception of their cat’s discomfort.
Researchers report that while cat ownership is high, 45.7 million Americans also enjoy watching birds, which they encourage into their gardens with birdfeeders. But in trying to feed birds, they make them easy targets. If one per cent of domestic cats in the US wore the collar, around 1.7 million birds might be saved in the spring, says Willson.
Just think how many birds could be saved worldwide with more cool cats wearing trend-setting collars!
Cats readily accept collars
For owners who question whether their cat would wear a collar, research shows cats will accept a collar more readily than owners expect, with almost three out of four cats in the study wearing a collar for a six-month duration. We mustn’t project our feelings onto our cat—cats aren’t going to feel self-conscious wearing a jazzy collar. Identification on the collar could make the difference between a lost cat being returned or taken as someone else’s pet, turning feral or ending up dead.
Local authorities consider cat ownership regulations
Animal Welfare Acts make clear an owner’s legal responsibility for their cat’s welfare, but there’s often no protection for wildlife. Reducing cat predation by regulating cat ownership is a sensitive issue and few governments have been prepared to risk unpopularity.
Local authorities are taking action though, prompted by evidence from conservationists.
Birdsbesafe collar covers are due to be tested in New Zealand in a joint project run by Wellington’s Victoria University and Wellington City Council. WCC is also proposing new laws that would require owners to microchip their cats and to keep them indoors between 7 pm and 7 am. Households would also be limited to no more than three cats. Domestic and feral cats have been killing wildlife in the city, threatening conservation efforts at Zealandia eco-sanctuary, home to many native species.
Cats can be persuaded to stay home
Cats can easily be trained to spend the night indoors. Cat behaviour specialist Lynne O’Malley says it only takes a few weeks if owners are persistent. Offering cats a regular treat to stay indoors in the evenings, playing games with them to release energy, and providing a safe sleeping spot will help.
In New Zealand’s Southland area, Wildlife Protection Zones are being considered. Pest management includes new rules for cat curfew, microchipping and also desexing, which prevents unplanned litters and reduces a cat’s desire to roam. Most likely the result of domestic cat dumping, feral cat colonies present a significant problem in Southland as well as in the US and Australia, where a cull is planned.
Australia takes bold action
In Australia, territory governments already implement cat regulations and cat owners are more aware of their responsibility. In Western Australia, for example, cats must be desexed, microchipped, and registered with the local council. Cats found roaming on private property or in a public place are picked up and either reunited with their owner or taken to an animal welfare centre. Microchipping and desexing rates are relatively high in Australia, with 91 per cent of cats desexed and 64 per cent of cats microchipped.
With the extent of denial among cat owners about wildlife predation, we could see fewer birds and small mammals in countries where cat numbers are rising without ownership regulations. But if we care about wildlife as well as our pets, we can be conservationists and responsible pet owners. Let’s keep cool cats not killer cats.
How do you keep birds safe in your garden? What do you do to keep your cat safe and to prevent him/her from harming birds? Would you consider a colourful collar for your cat?
Also published on Wildlife Articles