Monday, February 25, 2008

Is your kitty a conservation threat?

How often have you seen a cat stalking your bird feeder? If your yard is anything like mine, it's probably a fairly frequent sight. With many songbird species in decline across North America, you may have also wondered if those cats are contributing to the loss of bird life.

Americans love their pets, and obviously nobody wants to believe their beloved cat is a conservation threat.

In truth, compared to the staggering loss of habitat throughout the Americas, cats may seem a minor concern for bird survival. Songbirds undergo lengthy migrations each year, so they need intact habitat for feeding, nesting and resting from Canada to South America. Subdivisions, clearing of forests and intesive agriculture all reduce or eliminate these places for birds.

But cats can still have a significant impact, as David Mehlman, director of The Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Program, reports in this month's Ask A Conservationist.

When forests, fields and other habitat exist in smaller chunks, large predators disappear. In their place, more adaptable medium-sized predators like skunks, raccoons and red foxes thrive. Plus, bird nests and roosts are easier to find in small pieces of habitat than in large landscapes. It's easy hunting for America's suburban predators.

This includes cats. Indeed, one of the most common predators in America's suburbs and farmlands are cats, whether feral or just set out to roam by home owners. As such they can kill a lot of birds: as many as several hundred million a year.

It's a significant loss of birds, and one that can be prevented quite easily. Put a bell on your cat, or better yet, keep it indoors or on a leash. Idaho's backyard birds will have one less threat if you do. (And I must note: the two cute cats that illustrate this blog, owned by my colleague Stephanie Hansen, always wear bells when outside and are no threat at all to the local bird life). --Matt Miller

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