Putting Out the Cat? Pause.
When it comes to saving birds, the elephant in the room has whiskers.
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At Puddock Hill, I occasionally see a house cat on the prowl. I don’t know its name or who it belongs to, but its presence infuriates me.
Nothing against cats per se. We have owned several cats over the years—two of the three as apartment dwellers in New York; the third we rescued to appease the demands of our then-young daughter. These cats never left the house except under our strict supervision. Yours shouldn’t either.
A study published late last year in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution concluded that “humans are implicated in the negative outcomes that result from cats interacting with wildlife.” In other words, don’t let your domestic cat out of the house if you care about birds and small critters, who have it tough enough with the wild things.
This study floated back to me after a recent conversation in which I engaged with a geologist who works for oil companies. We were having a pleasant enough exchange when he asked what I do for a living then, in response, casually mentioned that “radical environmentalists don’t understand the science.” Here we go.
What science exactly?
He talked at first about irrational opposition to nuclear energy, and we could agree on that—although I believe that nuclear energy is too expensive and takes too long to build to be relied upon in the medium term to significantly reduce the world’s carbon emissions.
Then he blurted out something about windmills and birds. Science? Hardly. More like propaganda.
I’m not saying windmills don’t kill birds. Some have and will continue to do so inevitably. Electric cars will also kill birds, and when electric cars become the norm they will kill more birds than gas cars will. Our mere presence on the planet kills things, sometimes on purpose and often inadvertently. You know what will kill lots of birds? Cooking them with anthropogenic climate change. It will also kill lots of humans.
So I couldn’t let this cynical assertion about windmills rest.
The No. 1 culprit in killing birds is habitat destruction, I noted to the unscientific geologist. We can safely make this assertion even though there is limited data. And since drilling for oil always results in some direct destruction of natural habitat, we can also assume that fossil energy kills birds through land clearing, road building and the like. The effect of air pollution from burning—an externalized cost borne alike by birds and humans—we will save for another day.
The second-greatest killer of birds, I continued, admittedly improvising, is window strikes, which kill up to 1 billion birds a year in the United States alone, as I recalled. One. Billion. Since you care about birds so much, pal, how many windows do you plan to stop having?
Okay, I left that last question unsaid. Science indeed. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” We moved on to less confrontational subjects.
But after I walked away I thought about Felis catus—the domestic cat. As the report in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution drily observed, “Free-roaming domestic cats…impact native wildlife through predation and the transmission of disease, posing serious threats to native wildlife.”
How serious? It turns out I was wrong about the windows.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, collisions with building windows kill between 344 million and 988 million birds per year, while vehicles kill 89 million to 340 million. Electric lines kill up to 57 million.
Oil pits—a consequence of drilling—kill half a million to a million birds. That’s more than land-based wind turbines, which kill up to 328,000 and will certainly kill more as we build more (although wind energy companies have begun to consider how to mitigate this problem, which is more than we can say for oil companies, I’d venture). I certainly wish I’d had these figures at hand in my discussion with the fossil geologist.
If he had a cat, however, I might have made my point more, um, pointedly. Because it turns out that besides habitat destruction the No. 1 killers of birds by far are free-roaming house cats, which account for more than three-quarters of bird deaths attributable to human behavior in the U.S.
Photo Credit: Pixabay
Yes, friends, when it comes to slaughtering birds, domestic cats are kings of the jungle. In fact, they eliminate between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds every year. Billions with a B. Think about that next time you consider giving Buttons a little fresh air.
You simply cannot be a responsible backyard steward and a person who lets the cat run free.
The big pond at Puddock Hill just after the December freeze: