Saturday, 6 December 2014

Cats and birds

The sodden remains of a blackbird make a forlorn sight on the gravel path. What is left of the carcass sits within a wider pool of damp feathers, most of which are contour feathers but here and there are wing feathers, the squared off ends to the quills revealing they have been bitten off rather than plucked. This evidence alone directs the finger of blame towards one of the neighbourhood cats, of which there are many. Throughout the course of the year I will find half a dozen or more such corpses and who knows how many other birds, amphibians and small mammals will have been taken and eaten elsewhere.

It is an odd thing that we tolerate this level of butchery of our wildlife, the nation’s cats the agents of death for many tens – or possibly hundreds – of thousands of wild creatures each year. Perhaps the excuse that ‘it is in their nature’ is one that we collectively accept. It doesn’t seem right though, that we allow our pets to decimate wildlife in this manner.

The sad thing is that we do not have the figures to properly establish the impact that cats might be having on wildlife populations already under pressure from other things. It is just possible that cat predation might not be having an impact on birds like house sparrow and blackbird, which are often taken. Birds die and are killed by many different things, some of which – like disease and starvation – may be linked to how many birds there are, through a process known as density dependence. Cat predation may simply be removing some of the birds that would die anyway but, equally, it could be adding to the problem. We do know that the level of predation by urban cats is sufficient to make some parts of our towns and cities unsustainable for small mammals like mice.

While there is a need for impartial science to tell us the real impact of cats there is an overwhelming moral case for us to accept responsibility for the actions of our cats. It might be in their nature to kill but it is we who allow it to happen by letting them have free run outside.

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