We need to talk about Woody
'Cats of Instagram' has 11.6 million followers, and over 8 millions follow 'Happy Cats' on facebook, so in a desperate attempt to generate some traffic to this blog, I thought it was time to broach the subject of cats...
According to the PDSA, there are 10.9 million pet cats in the UK. There is also an unknown population of stray and feral cats in both rural and urban areas. These are partly monitored by The Cat Protection charity, which neutered 19,000 feral cats in 2019 (source: Cats annual report).
I’m a cat lover and housekeeper to a cat called Woody, I know, cute name. Having a Felis catus (i.e. domestic cat) in the house gives me a reminder that we need to share space with all species, and that sometimes we are very much in their way. I’m also interested in how as the 'dominant' species we have created all kinds of hierarchies and relationships with other animals, that can be very muddled. So recently, I decided to do a bit more research on the impact of cats on wildlife, and particularly birds.
If indeed the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas and still function, then my love of cats and birds is one way to boost my IQ.
In the book ‘Cat wars’ by Marra and Santella, there are several examples of where cats led or were part of species extinctions. This is a particular problem in Australia and New Zealand, with Australia now conducting feral cat culling programmes in order to protect its native wildlife. Further Australian research by Sarah Legge et al advises that pet cats are also part of the problem and need to be managed much more strictly.
The picture in Britain seems more moderate, but as cats are an emotive subject, I wonder how much this is about managing human sensibilities as opposed to stating the facts and highlighting the impact of our anthropomorphized fluffy killers.
Like me, the RSPB seems to be able to hold contradictory thoughts remarkably well.
Its website highlights on one page that ‘Despite the large numbers of birds killed by cats in gardens, there is no clear scientific evidence that such mortality is causing bird populations to decline.’ It also states that ‘cats catch over 100 million preys over spring and summer, of which 27 million are birds’, with house sparrows being one of the most common victims. On another webpage, the RSPB states ‘a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population, estimated as dropping by 71% between 1977 and 2008 with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations, and classifies the bird as an endangered species. https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/house-sparrow/
In urban areas, the British Trust for Ornithology states increased predation as one possible causes, alongside loss of habitat, reduced favoured food, pollution and disease prevalence. https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/gbw/about/background/projects/sparrows
Of course, loss of habitat is a major factor, and I wouldn’t want Woody to carry the can for my own species’ destructive behaviour. However, I can’t portray her as an innocent fur face either.
Furthermore, predation of birds is not the only problems caused by cats. A study published in 2013 by Colin Bonnington et al, showed ‘that the presence of domestic cats reduces the rate at which urban birds provision their young, creating the potential for sublethal effects, and induces lethal trait‐mediated indirect effects by increasing the rates of nest predation by other species.’ In other words, although Woody is advancing in years and views hunting as a spectator sport, she can still create havoc. Her mere presence in the garden can lead to birds not attending to their young as well as they could, and possibly giving opportunities to crows or magpies to raid nests in the meantime.
So, what do I do now? Like with many environmental problems, it’s hard to take on the incremental impact of our actions, including that of letting our pet cats roam freely. Maybe better control and regulation of pet ownership would help with ensuring cats don’t end up as strays so easily, and can't roam freely all the time.
Whenever I brush her I give her fur to the birds for nesting, it’s a very very small compensation scheme. But assuming she dies before me...would I have another cat?
Drawing inspired / plagiarised from Wendy MacNaughton. Check out her beautifully expressive artwork.
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All photos and artwork are my own.