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Focus on Earth
by Artemis
Lammas 2002, Vol 1-4
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feral barn cats
used with permission, Mississauga Animal Rescue Service
MatriCat!

Once upon a time, I was known as the neighborhood "Cat Woman." Not because I was Batman's adversary. Rather, I just couldn't resist taking in stray kitties. I housed and fed as many as twenty cats and kittens at a time. Many of them were offspring from the initial fugitive felines seeking safe asylum in my big red barn.

I was farming at the time, raising chickens and selling their eggs. My farm was located amid a roly-poly, pastoral Michigan landscape. Across the street, a rich closed-canopy forest stretched northward across thirty or so privately-owned acres until it connected with lands of the Manistee National Forest.

My early mornings began with roosters cock-a-doodling from the coop behind the house. This was quickly followed by a myriad of simultaneous birdsongs emanating from the woods across the street and from the gnarled old maples within my yard. Yes, my farm was rich with birds and other wildlife, too.

spring peeper

As I waded through grasses as tall as my armpits in the wetlands surrounding my homestead, I frequently and delightedly stumbled upon tree toads, deer mice, cottontails, chorus frogs, and slick blue racer snakes. Having grown up in the mowed-over suburban lawns of Chicago, I believed that I had landed smack in the middle of nature heaven.

Unfortunately, my wildlife paradise became degraded. As years passed, birdsongs and frog calls diminished in diversity. My encounters with blue racers and small mammals became less frequent. I blamed new neighbors and their noisy, cowboy activities (i.e. shooting guns, riding dirt bikes, chopping down trees, etc.) for chasing my revered wild friends away. It wasn't until many years later that I discovered the integral, albeit unwitting, role that I had played in the dismantling of my precious heaven.

My understanding then of predator and prey relationships in nature was simple and misguided. I viewed predation as a natural phenomenon. Predators hunt and kill, and prey utilize evasive maneuvers to avoid getting caught. It's natural for cats to kill and so I thought that birds and other local wildlife had built-in defenses against their predation. I couldn't have been more wrong. My reasoning was missing an extremely important variable called evolution.

feral cat
used with permission, KittyCaretakers of Queens

In other words, their behaviors develop in relation to the other species with which they interact. For example, if an American Crow flies over a Red-winged Blackbirds' territory, the blackbird will chase the crow, striking aggressively with its beak until the crow passes beyond the blackbird's territorial boundaries. The blackbird is able to recognize the crow as a threat to its offspring because crows have been raiding their nests for thousands of years. Blackbirds use this offensive action as well as strategic placement of their nests as defenses against this natural predator.

Cats, on the other hand, are not native to North America. They have been domesticated and they have no evolutionary relationship with our native fauna. Yes, they still possess their killer instincts. (In fact, scientists estimate that cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year and three times as many small mammals!*) However, cats were introduced in North America by European immigrants just a few hundred years ago.

robin with chicks

Our native songbirds and other creatures have not had enough time to evolve the necessary behaviors that guard against cat predation. For instance, many songbirds, such as the American Robin, build open-cup nests on lateral tree branches. This renders their nestlings vulnerable to cats, who can easily climb a tree, walk right up to the nest, and swipe its occupants. Parent birds may swoop and screech, but their efforts to distract the cat are futile. If cats had been a part of their evolutionary history, they would place their nests in a tree cavity, at the very tip-tops of trees, or in some other difficult-to-access location.

When I first learned these distressing facts and was trying to decide what to do about my roaming felines, a well-meaning friend advised me to attach a small bell to my cats' collars so the noise would warn wildlife of the impending threat. While that may seem a reasonable solution, let's think about the case of the robin and its nest.

Although adult robins are able to recognize an approaching cat as a menace to its young (no bell even necessary), they cannot successfully discourage the cat from its mission of assaulting the nest. Nor can nestlings escape as they are not yet capable of flight. A bell doesn't work in that situation. Furthermore, cats with bells on their collars can learn to stalk their prey silently so that the bell doesn't ring until it is too late. Also, wild animals, including many birds, do not necessarily associate the ringing of a bell with danger and do not recognize an approaching cat as a predator. Thus, putting bells on cats does not stop them from killing wildlife. [In fact, any collars but break-away collars can be hazardous to your cat's health. Ask your vet or pet store.]

Serendipity Sanctuary - no feral cats allowed
photo of Victoria, Australia road sign © copyright 2DocStock Photography

Whether I keep my cats well-fed or hungry also makes no difference in their ability to hunt and kill because the urge to hunt and the urge to eat are controlled by different portions of a cat's brain. In fact, a well-fed cat has more energy and may be more efficient at hunting than a feline suffering from malnutrition. Once caught by a cat, few birds survive, even if they appear to have escaped. Infection from the cat's teeth or claws or the stress of capture usually results in death.

Slowly I had to come to the realization that by allowing my barn cats to roam free, I was placing a higher value on their freedom than on the life of the animals they killed. In the early 1990's, I stopped allowing my cats to venture outdoors. The diversity of birds in that neighborhood still has not recovered and maybe never will. I know that other factors may have contributed to this decline, but I cannot disregard the impact from my ignorance.

Western meadowlark

I hope that within my lifetime kingbirds and meadowlarks will patrol those rolling Michigan farm fields once again. I hope the summer dawns there will again be accompanied by a range of songs so varied that even the most experienced bird watcher will be challenged to distinguish individual birds by ear.

In the meantime, my cherished kitties will either be kept indoors or in an outdoor enclosure where they will be safe from cars, animal attacks, disease, gunshot wounds, and poison hazards. They will watch birds and other creatures from their special window seats. As their adoring "Cat Woman," I will help them to express their hunter instincts by playing with them every day. And, as we play, I will listen for the soothing sounds of wild frogs and birds. My past regrets will melt into a new determination to prevent my tenderness for felines from jeopardizing the diversity of wildlife in my community.

Punkin

Reference
*Source: Keeping Cats Indoors Isn't Just For The Birds! Pamphlet by Cats Indoors! The Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats. American Bird Conservancy. Washington, DC 20037. For more information on this topic go to www.abcbirds.org

Graphics Credits
+ feral barn cats, used with permission, Mississauga Animal Rescue Service
+ Spring peeper, public domain photo by Gordon H. Rodda, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Image Library

+ feral cat, used with permission, KittyCaretakers of Queens
+ robin with chicks, public domain photo by James C. Leupold, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Image Library
+ Serendipity Sanctuary - no feral cats allowed; photo of Victoria, Australia road sign © copyright 2DocStock Photography + Western meadowlark, public domain photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Image Library
+ Punkin, photo courtesy of and © The Open Photo Library
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