What the Cat Dragged In

by Becca Novello
Intern, Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation

We keep a kitten rescue cam streaming in our break room just in case we ever need a pick-me-up. Here in the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation at VINS, we tend to get a somewhat bleak view of the natural world – if we do our job right over the rescue hotline, the only birds that come into our care are injured, ill, or orphaned. So while some days are filled with the absolute joy of recovery and healing, others are colored by death and euthanasia. On those days, the kitten tumble-fest gives us a healthy dose of brightness – it helps us to see the beauty around us when it has become otherwise unrecognizable.

That said, some days even the kitten cam doesn’t quite fulfill its therapeutic duty. We’ve had a complicated relationship with cats these days, or really with their owners, to be more accurate. Of the hundreds of birds that come through our rehabilitation facility each year, 10-15% come in for injuries sustained by outdoor cats. In 2014, we saw the results of 39 cat attacks, and we’ve already seen 43 this year. When we’ve just had to euthanize a fledgling robin with a leg snapped in half by a cat on the hunt, all we can do is hope that those kittens on the screen are going to homes where they’ll be raised as happy, healthy indoor cats.

A fledgling House Wren that was released after two weeks of rehabilitation for injuries sustained from an outdoor cat 

Anyone who has owned an outdoor cat knows the joy of finding a fresh kill (a “present” of sorts) on the porch.  We think of it as a small-scale occurrence – after all, what’s that one cardinal or chipmunk in the overall ecosystem, right? Unfortunately, over the past few years we’ve been learning that our occasional gifts are only a tiny glimpse into a world of hurt. In 2012, National Geographic and the University of Georgia teamed up to take a look at what was really going on in our pets’ private lives by attaching small cameras to outdoor cats. They found that cats bring home less than a quarter of their kills [or near-kills], meaning that we’re typically blind to the vast majority of their hunting. A comprehensive study in 2013 blew previous estimates out of the water, finding that free-ranging cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds in the U.S. each year. The truth is that the cumulative effects of our small-scale choices can have catastrophic effects on bird populations. In fact, according to a 2010 University of Nebraska study, cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 species of birds worldwide.

Especially in the summer, when vulnerable baby birds are being sent out into the world, outdoor cats have the potential to do incredible amounts of damage. Most songbirds fledge from the nest well before they’ve actually learned to fly; they’re still being cared for by their parents, but they’re defenseless against predators that can scoop them right up off the ground. Even if a cat isn’t looking to kill and the bird makes it away with only a few scratches, they’re not out of the woods. Cats carry powerful bacteria in their mouths and on their claws that are extremely dangerous to birds, and tiny scrape or puncture wound can rapidly lead to a fatal infection.

Bright BirdsBeSafe collars can help adult birds locate and avoid cats

So what can you do? Attaching bells to a cat’s collar doesn’t actually do any good – cats, clever as they are, can quickly learn to silence it while they hunt. The bright, clown-like collars made by BirdsBeSafe (http://www.birdsbesafe.com/) go a long way to protect adult birds but don’t do much for flightless fledglings. To be honest, the best solution by a long shot is to transition a cat to an indoor lifestyle. It can be tough, but it’s doable! And it’s worth it. If not for the birds, do it for your cat; the average lifespan of an outdoor cat facing cars, disease, and predation is between two and five years, while that of an indoor cat is between 12 and 20 years. For tips on how to transition your cat to an indoor lifestyle, visit http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/cats/tips/bringing_outside_cat_indoors.html. If you have any additional questions, feel free to give us call on our hotline at (802) 359-5001 ext. 510.

So whether you want to save wildlife, create a healthy lifestyle for your cat, or just give us a bit of a break here at VINS, start taking steps to move your cat inside today!

Additional Resources:
American Bird Conservancy on keeping cats indoors
“The Truth About Cats and Birds” by Andrew C. Revkin (The New York Times)

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