You’ve done it—you created the perfect outdoor oasis. Now lilting birdsongs are your alarm clock; your double-decker birdhouse seldom has a peak-season vacancy; and “the restaurant”—otherwise known as the feeding station—practically requires a reservation. Things couldn’t be better. Then disaster strikes: a cat with a tuft of feathers dangling from its mouth. How can you protect your backyard birds from such an untimely end? Our expert ornithologist Steve Kress covers everything you need to know.
Got a Sylvester stalking your feeder hoping to snag himself a Tweety Bird? Between 1970 and 1990 the number of domestic cats in the United States doubled, from 30 million to 60 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Taking into account stray and feral cats, more than 100 million cats are likely prowling the United States. Although birds make up only about 20 percent of the prey killed by cats (mice and other rodents are mainly taken), felines kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. Many of these are migratory songbirds that are already under pressure from habitat loss and other threats, including collisions with buildings and cell phone towers. Most bird fatalities happen near homes, where house cats come and go and where birds are concentrated at feeders. Fledglings are acutely vulnerable, since some spend a few days on the ground before they can fly.
The best way to reduce the risks to birds is to keep cats indoors—particularly if there are active bird feeders nearby. This protects not only birds; it could save the cats from untimely deaths on the road. Indoor cats are also safer from feline leukemia and other diseases, parasites, attacks from predators, and fights with other cats. Additionally, cats that roam at night are more likely to come into contact with raccoons and skunks, the primary transmitters of rabies in the wild. The average lifespan of an outdoor cat is just five years; by contrast, indoor cats can live more than 15 years.
Putting bells on a kitty’s collar is largely ineffective in preventing bird predation, because by the time the bell rings, it’s usually too late for the prey to escape; fledglings are unable to fly away in any case. Kittens are easiest to train to a life indoors, but even older cats can learn new ways. It takes the attention of your entire family to keep your cat within the safety of your home. Providing toys, games, activities, and other forms of “environmental enrichment” can help minimize boredom and keep indoor cats fit and alert. Bird feeders near windows—even videos of bird feeders, mice, and fish—can entertain indoor cats for hours. Or try interactive cat games that provide exercise, play, and problem solving. One source is the book 101 Cool Games for Cool Cats (Rockwell House, 2007), by Elissa Wolfson. Also consider a fenced-in cat enclosure that offers fresh air, sunshine, and climbing perches. Commercial pre-built enclosures are available from online retailers. For those who have neighborhood cats near their feeders, one device that may prove useful is the Scarecrow Motion Activated Defender. This battery-operated product has a motion/heat sensor that triggers a startling noise and a blast of water to scare predators. If you need proof that a neighbor’s cat is stalking your feeders, catch him in the act with a weatherproof camera like the Wingscapes BirdCam, which snaps photos with a motion-detecting lens.
For more backyard bird feeding tips from Audubon’s Steve Kress, click here.