The Dangers to Birds and Small Mammals

If you read recently about the Smithsonian study that stated free roaming cats kill up to 24 billion birds and small mammals annually, you probably had questions.  Some of those questions may have been:

  • WTF?
  • Where can I buy whatever the Smithsonian researchers are smoking?
  • Are there 24 billion bird and mammal skeletons weighed down with wee cement shoes at the bottoms of every river in the United States?

Thankfully, Peter Wolf at Vox Felina has answers to all these questions and more (well, not the second one actually).  His post entitled Garbage In, Garbage Out looks at the research in detail and brings to light various flaws.  Serious flaws.  For example, he notes that the studies referenced in the paper are, in various cases, outdated, imprecise, misrepresented and counted more than once.  Using these studies to extrapolate such things as the number of cats with access to prey and the number of birds and small mammals killed by these cats results in even greater imprecision.  Thus the title of Vox Felina’s post.  And then there is the issue of agenda, specifically to undermine TNR, and the authors’ apparent bias:

[Peter] Marra (a vocal critic of TNR) served as Nico Dauphiné’s advisor at the Smithsonian until October 2011, when she resigned after being found guilty of attempted animal cruelty. And [Tom] Will, also an outspoken critic of TNR, helped Dauphiné land her post-doc fellowship there with a letter of recommendation.* (Her position was funded by USFWS, just as [Scott] Loss’ is today.)

While I am grateful there are smart minds like Peter Wolf willing to put in the work to debunk this study, I think many people will simply apply the common sense test to the outrageous claims made in the paper.  Which is to say, a quick glance at the sky, the trees and the ground reveal that indeed, bird and small mammal populations are thriving.  And cats are not the wildlife mafia.

As one commenter put it on Gawker (Warning:  bad language alert):

right. it’s not fucking encroachment by archer-daniels midland, or death by monsanto poisoned seeds or bayer or ortho pesticides and herbicides, oh no, it couldn’t be those things. it couldn’t fucking be from air, water and soil pollution, fuck no; everyone knows those things are *good* for billions of birds.

it’s frisky the cat. only cats. cats are to blame.

+1 for common sense.

34 thoughts on “The Dangers to Birds and Small Mammals

  1. “Which is to say, a quick glance at the sky, the trees and the ground reveal that indeed, bird and small mammal populations are thriving”

    whatever the truth about cats,THIS statement is completely untrue. Almost all native species are declining (the exceptions are extreme generalists such as coyotes), and some that require special habitats are near extinction. It’s certainly true that there are many causes of these declines.. but if you completely deny the decline, your effort to debunk the scientific studies showing the impact of cats, on the grounds of suspect data/analysis, becomes frankly uncredible.

    1. I thought my cheeky comment coupled with the in-kind comment from Gawker went well together.

      At any rate, no one is disputing that there are dangers to wildlife and that cats kill birds sometimes. It’s the monstrosity of the claims and the agenda behind them that is suspect.

      1. But…but they’re EVIL! Witch familiars! Favored pet of supervillans!

        Sadly, the “science” behind all of this is essentially “favored pet of supervillans” and “will probably end up eating your babies when they run out of native species”.

    2. The decline in population of these critters is due to humans – how can you build a shopping mall or housing development without destroying the habitat of these critters…much easier to blame it on cats.

      Cats have been villified for years. the haters just have more if not flawed research to do it with.

      Put the blame where it goes – humans

  2. However…I have 4 housecats…emphasis on HOUSE.No reason in the world for them to be “roaming” and subsequently accused of bothering birds or anyone else.We created a really nice play area…screened and covered next to the garage..with branches for them to climb and grass to roll on and they can see everyone from 3 directions.On cold winter days..they’re content to snuggle into someone’s bed or look out the windows AT them.None of them seems to feel any need to roam.It doesn’t take BIG money to create interesting things INSIDE the house to entertain them.If I let them out..the risk of being run over,stolen,hurt or sick is too enormous to even consider doing that to critters I’m fond of.My dogs don’t “run” cats don’t need to either.

  3. Cats don’t target scarlet tanagers and Kirtland’s warblers. That’s us — destruction of nesting habitat, pesticides (especially, nowadays, in their winter ranges in Central America) and the introduced nest, food, and territory competitors — house sparrows and starlings, among others. The hyperabundance of these pests suggests that neither kitty-cats nor other predators are have much overall impact on the population of small birds. Because, again, native songbirds are not easier to catch than invasives. (In fact, they are probably a great deal more difficult to catch.)

    Our “barn cat” (who has recently given himself a promotion and is snoozing on the back of the sofa behind my head at the moment) does a pretty good job on mice in the barn, and lines up parts of them for inspection pretty regularly during the mouse production season. He is a highly effective predator, by design — it’s his job description, not a by-product of pet-keeping.

    But, though they torture him, the house sparrows that infest both my barns and attack my bluebird nest boxes are apparently uncatchable. (Hint: cats can’t fly.) As they carry poultry disease, and in consideration of the bluebirds, I’m going to have to trap them.

    Native songbirds would be helped a great deal more if all the people tch-tching over the bad ol’ puddy tats would STFU and DO something to help the birds. Providing (and maintaining, please) nest boxes for cavity nesters, protecting standing snags on their properties and public lands for other cavity nesters, discontinuing all lawn and garden pesticides (goodbye to the astroturf look), planting wildlife gardens, trapping and killing aggressive invasive species such as house sparrows, buying organic, local, sustainable foods from diversified farms rather than industrial chemically-dependent GMO monocultures, relinquishing or altering environmentally damaging hobbies such as golfing, and lobbying politically for the protection of habitat and the control of chemical pesticides.

    But those are “hard.” Scolding the neighbor for letting her cat outside is easy and fun.

    1. You said it right there – easier to attack someone for their cat being out than to go after the real causes, or to make personal choices that would help wildlife.

    2. It’s just as bad, if not worse, if you kill sparrows rather than any cat. Since when did sparrows ever become “invasive species?” You may not like them, but they have every right to be there as any other bird. Obviously, you have a preference for bluebirds, but at the peril of sparrows because of your short sightedness. Please don’t let your predjudice of certain birds harden your heart

      Taking the lives of many birds, as you suggest you’re doing, is contrary to nature’s design. Please, allow them their life & their freedom, to be in peace. “Thou shall not kill” is not a suggestion.

      1. English sparrows ARE a non-native, invasive specie in the United States, that have aggressively competed with native species for habitat and food. Originally introduced into the US as caged birds kept as pets, along with various finches, etc, that when released into the wild, whether intentially or accidentaly, thrived, multiplied, and spread. The english sparrow is certainly not in “peril” in the US, but many native species it has displaced, are.

      2. in addenda to my 1st post re english sparrows as a non-native invasive species, will add, attempts to introduced the Eurasian sparrow hawks, which are the primary natural predator of English parrow in Europe, keeping them in check in ecosystems there, largely failed here, both for failures to adapt, but also that the hawks, when introduced into the US, preyed on other more vulnerable US native species, actually compounding the problem. I remember as a child, in the 50’s, great hordes of english sparrows, that had crowed out most all other species in some areas, and some attempts at reducing their numbers by several means inclusing trapping and mass netting, and yes, probalby poisoning. It did seem to reduce their numbers, though it seems there are fewer of all kinds of birnds, as well. and I just can’t accept the ‘cats did it’ argument.

      3. Erm. I’m pretty sure H. Houlahan knows who’s living in her neck of the woods since she’s efficient and knowledgeable like that, but ….

        While the English or house sparrow is indeed an introduced species, out here in California there are native species who resemble them somewhat, and are often mistaken for them – especially the Brewer’s and Fox sparrows, who are both little brown jobs with tweedy wings. But I’ve known people – even ones who ought to know better, such as rehab volunteers – to mistake species such as white-crowned and white-throated sparrows for house sparrows too, despite the clearly different markings. Heck, among the less observant, I’ve heard just about any smallish brown bird called a sparrow.

        Since there are many, many species of sparrow, I expect it’s the same in other regions of North America.

        (Another lesson along these lines: for a very long time, it was assumed the house finch, another little brown job, was non-native. Then someone actually did some research, and lo, it turned out it was a Southwestern and Western native in the process of expanding its range. There are rehabs who still haven’t got the message, though.)

      4. So you’re saying all little brown birds are NOT sparrows? And there is more than one kind of sparrow? Oh, woe is me. These are the kinds of birds I know: pigeons, sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, robins, flamingos, crows, bald eagles, vultures. It’s not many, considering the seemingly infinite different kinds out there. And now I have to cross sparrows off the list.

      5. I thought that all tall pink birds were flamingos, so don’t feel so bad, Shirley.

        I will say that my outdoor ferals are not massive bird killers (chipmunks and mice, though – definitely yes) except when we get a wave of conjunctivitis going through the local population. The pine siskins are almost always the hardest hit and the result is birds that are partially or fully blind. I used to go out and catch the most compromised ones (by hand – they would land on the ground and could not see well enough to get away from my slow moving self) and bring them to the rehab facility, but the ones who weren’t in bad enough shape for me to catch would continue to suffer and either get better or die slowly.

        Now, when the conjunctivitis hits, we don’t see the weakened and sick birds sitting on the ground, waiting to starve to death or die of thirst. Our Cleo kills them quickly and cleanly and eats them. I am grateful for her service.

      6. For many years, my husband insisted all the turkey vultures were really eagles, the problem was my eyes!

  4. Yeah, my cats are big, bad predators. I used to worry about this and feel very guilty. Actually, the male is pretty useless. The puffy, white female, however, is a killing machine! I know what she gets, because if she doesn’t bring them to me the dogs do. Mostly mice and voles, of which there seem to be no shortage. I do regret the occasional bird and cheer the occasional squirrel or rat (big suckers! Way to go, baby!). I actually make a point of not luring birds to my yard to be viewed as kitty entertainment. I don’t poison them, either.

  5. One of my ferals sometimes catches and eats house sparrows and the occasional starling. I am conflicted…

  6. Unlike Peter, I do think Nico Dauphine’s work – and any work to which she contributed significantly – ought indeed to be dismissed out of hand. In fact, I think her work should be formally discredited and withdrawn. Thing is, there’s really no more blatant example of unethical behavior and bias in a researcher focusing on cat predation than being caught red-handed in an attempt to poison neighborhood cats. That the conservation studies community has continued to reference Dauphine’s work … tells me that there’s something seriously amiss, corners that desperately need light and a good cleaning.

    I also think that, whatever the stated purpose of studies like this, their sole effect – and likely their intended effect – is to provoke. I think TNR is despised by these people not because it doesn’t work but because it does, and it’s not the answer they want. They want to kill cats. That’s the answer they want – a blood bath, and a tabula rasa from which to begin anew. It doesn’t matter that it’s inhumane, that it won’t work, that there are many, many people who love cats and don’t want to see them killed, that there is no real-world possibility of a tabula rasa. They want it anyway.

  7. That article made me wonder if the NY Times has a specific anti-TNR agenda. Why else would they publish such nonsense? Any research that has ties to someone who was actually convicted on attempted animal cruelty has to have a big question mark. Why didn’t the NY Times disclose the bias behind this report? Such sloppy journalism from a respected newspaper.

    1. These kinds of articles – which appear every few months at least – are almost always published without critical analysis. In this regard no newspaper or periodical has been better than any other. Or science bloggers, for that matter. Especially in the US, science writers tend to treat these crap studies as if they’re gospel and all feral cat advocates fools. This has been so consistent that I can only assume it’s because it’s what they want to believe, and they’d just as soon not examine any of it too closely.

  8. I liked this comment on Gawker –

    “The predators of the jungle have found a place in our homes. Why does anyone NEED these instruments of death? They are designed for one thing, to kill. Only the police should have cats. “

  9. This is essentially a press relations issue, IMO.

    Conservationists are lumped in with environmentalists, or at least — for both the public and the press — there is significant overlap. Environmentalists have had 35 years or so to establish their credibility with the press, and there is at least one generation of science reporters and editors for whom it is simply inconceivable that environmentalists (which is how the anti-catters are positioning themselves) would lie.

    The cat advocacy groups are much newer, they are small, they are poorly funded, and they have no effective press outreach. They are not associated in any way with high-public-recognition groups that have acquired the status of “institutions,” such as the Audubon Society. And they do not have the imprimatur of the federal government (the Smithsonian, the US Fish & Wildlife Service) and universities on their work.

    Cat advocates are essentially outsiders, and they are viewed as such.

    Importantly, they have not yet done the time-consuming, difficult spadework to improve science reporters’ and editors’ perception of TNR . . . which would include convincing those reporters and editors that the “good guys” (the environmentalist/conservationists) are deliberately doing something questionable if not cruel, hardly a small challenge.

    I think this press-relations effect is magnified in the case of the blue-chip media outlets who have been the worst offenders on this issue. The New York Times, for example, will do little or nothing to question the Smithsonian because the Smithsonian is an authoritative institution . . . just like the NYT itself.

    And in some cases, especially at high-end media outlets, there are actually personal/professional relationships that determine editorial decisions. This isn’t surprising given that, as a class, environmentalists/conservationists and reporters/editors go to the same schools, meet each other in social groups, and move back and forth between allied institutions in their careers . . . not necessarily the case with cat advocates, who I suspect are overall much more socio-economically diverse as well as far less organized. Beyond the relationships noted in Fox Velina’s takedown of the Smithsonian travesty, a commenter at Vox Felina’s Facebook page on Friday listed these:

    Slate article “Cats are Evil” – published days before the study, written by Slate health and science editor Laura Helmuth (Ph. D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from Berkeley), who was senior editor of Smithsonian Magazine for 8 years until about a year ago. Salon report on the study, title “Death to the house cat!” written by Hannah Waters who also wrote the report for Scientific American on the study – title “Cats Are Ruthless Killers, Should They Be Killed”, is employed by the Smithsonian. She self-describes as “When not collecting soul albums or gushing about sweaters, Hannah Waters writes about ecology, natural history, the history of science, and whatever else pops into her little head. She lives and works in Washington, DC, but, really, on the internet.”

    None of this is right, but I believe it will keep on happening until cat advocates address it where it needs to be addressed: in the area of media relations.

  10. NPR did a challenge to the “study”: I like this quote:

    If even animal advocates admit “the impact is big,” why do the specific numbers matter so much? Because when people start thinking of cats primarily as murderers, it then becomes the cats’ lives that may be seriously endangered. Of concern are not only extremists like the man in New Zealand who recently suggested a ban on pet cats; cat advocate organization Alley Cat Allies says that the study is so “biased” that it amounts to an invitation to “ramp up the mass killings of outdoor cats.”

  11. The sad thing about the story is, many people buy it, hook, line & stinker.

    My uncle sent me the article in full belief of how we will soon be out of birds because of house cats. I had read a simular article about a year ago which I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now. But there are too many people who will feel justified disposing of cats because of crap stories such as this Smithonian “study.”

    Study? The only study involved was in her imagination, I believe.

  12. My biggest concern is that there will be more people now who think that killing all outdoor cats (ferals,semi-ferals, roamers) is the answer.
    We humans do much more to destroy the habitat and environment that allows birds (and other animals) to thrive than cats do.

      1. Well, I dunno, not-killing-people doesn’t seem so crazy to me at all. There’s some oogy weird implications I’ve seen in the comments on this that we should kill people instead of cats, and that just makes me shudder a little harder each time.

  13. Having lived rural now 40 yrs, suburband 25 yrs before that, having observed many feral and semi-feral cat populations over that time, I have not observed them being the most signficant predators of birds or cause for their decline. Feral cats DO kill many small mammals, often their primary diet, but in most ecosystems, that is a PLUS, not a PROBLEM. In many ecosystems, expecially suburban and urban, where such natural predators (foxes, coyotes,weasels, etc) of small mammals including mice, rats, moles, etc, are mostly excluded, feral cats fill that niche, otherwise we’d be over run by those small mammals. In my own observations over my lifetime, the most signficant “predator” of wild birds, especially larger, slower moving song birds (easier to hit) are kids with bb and pellet guns. I find myself getting very cross wise with people that give their kids bb guns for Christmass, when I bring up the wild birds, they immediately argue, no, their kids wont be shooting birds, just ‘varmits’…hahahahahaaaaaaa…..just how many ‘varmits’, by which I presume they mean rats, possums, skinks, coyotes, out here in a rural area, is any kid or anyone else likely to happen upon a chance to shoot out wandering in daytime hours???? Birds are all they are going SEE to shoot at!

  14. It’s time for some FOIA and funding investigations. Our tax money is being appropriated by Congress for both these orgs. A couple of years ago it came to light that all the stuff sold in the Smithsonian gift shop came from China- congressional inquiry followed and they were forced to reduce imports.
    It is imperative that we all sing the same message- that we are totally united on this- as we are on BSL.
    Our message must be clear, concise, and never deviated from (if political party mouthpieces have taught us anything).
    We need to call for a Congressional inquiry/investigation, not only on our tax money but also on the amount of $$ the ABC is donating to USFW to buy this witch hunt against cats.
    Nathan, BF, ACA- we need your leadership here. We must get the truth out and at the same time raise the din level to Congress.

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