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CATS: Frequently Asked Questions (1 Viewer)

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BirdForum Cat FAQ

Cats and birds always generate lively discussion. Cat owners and bird lovers alike don't want to see birds killed by cats, so here is a summary of the tips from Bird Forum members and elsewhere on how to minimise the conflict and maximise the peace. To cover all points of view this Cat FAQ has been written by Jos Stratford, a cat owner, and Ermine, a non-cat owner. Jos has some great tips on how to site your feeders and keep cats out, from direct experience of the feline nature, and Ermine brings you the solutions he has found work in keeping cats out of his garden.
http://www.suffolkbirds.co.uk/catfaq.html#links


All cats are individuals - you will have to find out by trial and error which techniques work on the particular cats you have near you. There are two approaches to the issue of cats and birds. One approach is to ask

How do I reduce the likelihood of a cat launching a successful attack on birds in my garden?

and the other approach tackles the question

How do I keep cats out/discourage cats from my garden.

Reducing the likelihood of a successful attack is of the essence for cat owners. However, excluding cats from your garden if you don't have one is not easy to guarantee 100% , so Jos' wisdom is just as relevant for non cat-owners to provide a last-ditch defence! Here, Jos shares his expertise in enjoying his cats while keeping his birds healthy -

Jos - Where I'm coming from!!!

A cat owner, and an owner of a cat that goes outside, I've read countless threads that have debated the rights and wrongs of allowing your cat outside, the impacts that cats can have and possible ways to minimise the number of birds caught by cats.

Firstly, it is clear that there is not a single solution that will fully suit everyone - some people simply do not want cats in their garden, period (a view I can understand), whilst others are looking for ways to create a garden that can accommodate both birds and a cat (perhaps theirs or ones wandering in). For this reason, to the two camps, I have tried to offer possible advice on the two alternatives. US cat owners should also look further down this FAQ, since the culture of keeping cats is very different from in the Old World.

Making a garden safer for birds

Most people, particularly cat-owners themselves, are looking for ways to create conditions favourable to birds even if the garden occasionally has a cat. Probably many don't believe it's possible, but you can combine a garden with many birds and still have a cat that goes outside! Most important, I think, is to observe the cats that visit your garden - if you can see where/how they are catching birds, it might be relatively simple to change something in the garden to make it harder for the cats to hunt. Simply chasing the cats out at first sight will usually just mean they sneak back in when you are at work - once you have worked the 'weaknesses' of the garden, then chase them out if you so desire! An example of this was in my garden when, after an almost whole winter of zero bird losses, my cat got three birds in short succession - I took time to watch her in the garden, then realised she had found a snow hole and was sitting in it and waiting for birds to hop past. Simply filling in the hole led to no further losses for the entire winter.

A few tips on things that might work -

1. Most obvious is positioning of feeders - don't place if possible near thick cover where a cat can lurk, especially important for all the ground feeding birds which will be hopping about under the feeders. The chief danger does not seem to be with the birds on the feeders themselves, but for those that forage under the feeders - obviously you need to think about the safety of these attracted by the food dropped under the feeder. Are the spills near cover? If so, can you move the feeder of fence the cover? Same goes for drinking pools - a raised birdbath on a pedestal is, I believe, safer.

2. If the cat is yours, put a bell on it, using a collar that has a release in case it gets snagged. This will not reduce kills totally, as the cat invariably learns to walk without making the bell make a noise - two bells on the collar is more effective in this case (read next point however). I have no experience of sonic collars (not in this country), but might be worth considering - does anybody have experience of this?

3. If the cat pounces out from hedges or lines of thick bushes, think about a small neat fence about 30 cm high - it stops the sudden pounce and doesn't look unsightly. It worth adding if a cat is ambushing from cover, it makes little difference if the cat is wearing ten bells, its speed is faster than birds can react to any tinkling bells. This type of fence is an easy way to reduce these losses to cats, preventing the possibility of sudden attack from the depths.

4. If you own a cat and want to let her outside, get her into the routine of coming in for her main meal in the evening and then not going out again till next morning - dawn is the most dangerous time in the garden and if she's happily sleeping on your bed, not much wrong is going to happen.

5. Likewise, consider limited periods when she does get banned from the garden - the obvious time being when a nestbox full of chicks is about to fledge and dozens of youngsters are sprawling across your lawn.

6. Another thing I do is to clip my cat's claws throughout the spring - it stops her climbing to the nestboxes, etc (strange thing is she now lies on her back and lets me do the clipping!)

7.Talking to neighbours with cats in a friendly, non-confrontational way might persuade them to either keep the cat inside or fence their garden to keep it in their garden. Of course, this is only a partial solution - if you have co-operative neighbours, it might deal with individual cats, but there will be many cases where you don't know whose cats are entering your garden.

None of these will guarantee total prevention of cat predation, but they help and, since some are so simple, I think worth a try. I don't suppose we will ever 100 % stop cats catching birds, but it is possible get almost there, and if you try to learn from any catches, the garden should become ever-safer.

Fencing your Garden

If you really don't want any cats in your garden, consider fencing your garden (this keeps out dogs too, the reason I fenced my garden). The problem is obviously this is not the cheapest option and probably some out there will say it's the responsibility of the cat owner not garden owner. Yes, I guess that is true, but the reality is cats are not going anywhere fast and it's you and your birds that are suffering, so it might be worth just going for it. A wooden fence, by far the nicest of fences to look at, is regrettably easy for cats to climb. Chainlink is ugly but (more or less) cat proof. On a wooden fence, or where other fencing solutions have not worked, it might be worth thinking about running an electric fence wire along the top of the fence.

This must be a type-approved electric fence of the type farmers have to keep cattle in - it won't harm the cats and will be within the law. In the UK you must have signs clearly visible to warn people of the presence of an electric fence. It is a single strand, so wouldn't look unsightly and is not very expensive. I can't imagine too many cats shinnying over that too often! It would give only minor shock to cats - I think many people's dogs put their great slobbery noses on the farmers fences and shoot back a couple of inches with a quick yep, only to be running around a couple of seconds later - keeping a beady eye out for that fence. As for birds, should have no affect at all - as I imagine, the wire will be mounted on top of the fence and, by necessity (or it will short out), will be raised from the fence by insulators by some centimetres, thus if the birds don't make contact with wire and ground, then all is okay (as on the big electric wires around the country). If they do make contact, still the current is very minor - it would have no impact, though might not encourage them to visit your garden so keenly :)

Should I stop feeding birds if cats visit the garden?

Only in an extreme case would I suggest this, following the advice given should make it possible to reduce losses to an absolute minimum. It is also worth remembering that in most cases, the positive effects of feeding far outweigh the occasional losses to cats. If, however, you have some very persistent cats and none of the solutions seem to be working, it is an emotive point and you might want to consider stopping.

Does a cat have an impact on local bird populations?

Any loss of a bird to a cat is regrettable and we should all try to minimise the numbers killed. However, though cats can have impact on very localised populations (such as islands, etc), there is not a single reputable study that links any urban/suburban bird declines in the UK to losses to cats. The sometimes quoted figure of 70 million birds killed by cats in the UK is open to debate, but even if accepted, it does not mean this is reducing the population. The impact of artificial feeding in gardens way over compensates for any losses to cats. The short of it is, for each Blue Tit for example that breeds, fledging its brood of 8 to 10, all but two will be dead by the next season. In a rural setting, winter food shortages are probably significant. In suburban areas, provision of food eliminates this loss to some extent, but cats and cars are the price. Swings and roundabouts. This said, I reiterate, anything we can do to reduce this loss is to be welcomed.

A personal example, my bird garden

I live in a country where winters are basically five months long and temperatures fall to minus 25 or 30. Into this I have a very active feeding station and a cat. In the early years I lost some birds to cats (including mine), this has now fallen away as the garden has become less attractive to cats' hunting habits. The winter bird population totals about 500-700 birds daily (depending on the severity of the weather) and, largely thanks to simple garden design, my cat killed only three birds last winter - though this loss is regrettable and I try to learn from it, it does not have any real impact on the upward trend of birds in the garden. In comparison, in winter I also have 4 to 5 Sparrowhawks taking their toll and an occasional Great Grey Shrike - they also kill birds, but again (although the number is much greater than is taken by cats) the loss is minor in comparison to the positive effects of feeding. In my area, nobody else feeds in winter and, to take one bird, the Tree Sparrow population stood at about 25 to 30 birds when I started feeding 5 or 6 years ago - all year feeding has taken this population up to the present total bordering 100 birds (not including all the fledglings).

Happy birding in the garden - there is plenty of place for both moggie and birds if a bit of thought is put into place :)

Jos

Ermine, a non-cat-owner's viewpoint.

My approach has been that I don't want other people's pets in my garden. This topic has caused a lot of heated arguments over 'irresponsible' owners and talk of extreme solutions, generally among those listed under What you should not try, and why. I have tried to choose a more constructive approach. I accept that I don't have control of other people or their animals, but I do have control over my own space, so I concentrate my efforts on that. I have of course taken Jos's advise in arranging my feeders away from ground cover which should always be the first things to do to give your birds the best chance if they are faced with a cat! The rest of my approach is based on -

how do I stop cats getting into my garden

You are unlikely to achieve 100% success in excluding cats, and all cats are different. Some will be very determined, and keeping them out all the time will need more time and resources than is reasonable. You would be very unlucky if none of the remedies helped at all. Cats are creatures of habit. If the cat problem has been there for a while it will take some time for the errant cat to get the message - don't give up after just a couple of weeks! You need to be consistent in applying the deterrents, and monitor how it changes the cats behaviour. If your deterrents mean the cat chooses a different route into the garden then the deterrent is working - you just need to deter the new route in! Level-headed study and experiment are your friends in dealing with a cat problem - change just one thing at a time and monitor the changes in behaviour over several days.

Many sources advocate approaching the cat owner. You need to exercise judgement here - people become defensive when their lifestyle choices are criticised. Only you know whether the relationship with the owner is right for this, and clearly what you want the cat owner to do must be possible. So "I want you to stop your cat killing birds" isn't possible - whereas "maybe fewer birds would be killed if the cat is kept indoors at night" is possible. You can discourage cats from entering your garden by several methods - none is guaranteed to work with all cats, so you have to find what works with your unwanted visitors. Feeding birds in your garden is also a lifestyle choice, and some cat owners may have some justification in countering with the line "I get droppings from your birds on my washing/car/lawn chairs"

Deterrents fall into two categories - area deterrents and spot deterrents. Area deterrents protect an area of a couple of square metres (square yards). Examples of area deterrents are fences, ultrasonic deterrents and water sprays, and you watching from the window with a bucket of water at the ready! Area deterrents are not 100% effective on all cats, but reduce the cat occupancy of your space if deployed correctly [9]. They tend to be more expensive than spot deterrents but have lower running costs.

Spot deterrents are more localised and cheaper than area deterrents. They are better at handling issues such as repeated fouling and digging up plants. These tend to have a higher effectiveness over a very small area than space deterrents. All odour based deterrents are spot deterrents.

Many of the issues people have with using deterrents are because they are using spot deterrents as space deterrents. You will need a lot of stinky stuff to exclude cats from your garden and you won't enjoy the garden yourself - on the other hand ultrasonic scarers are not a cost-effective response to localised fouling.

Area deterrents

ultrasonic deterrents

These work on the same principle as security lights that switch on when they detect motion of a warm-blooded creature, but instead of a light they emit a high-frequency sound that should be inaudible to humans. They can be battery powered or powered from a mains to low-voltage adaptor. These tend to detect a cat from a much greater range than they deter a cat. They detect a cat from about 10m (11 yards) but only deter a cat from about 2m (6ft). The RSPB [9] have tested the effect of one type (Catwatch) and this reduced the cat-hours in gardens by over half. You usually need several, though you can protect a bird feeder with one. Some are claimed to work on other mammals such as foxes. These do not appear to put off birds, though they are set off by larger species such as starlings and blackbirds.

Do not use types which are permanently sounding for gardens. Permanently running deterrents are designed for roof spaces etc which are not normally occupied, and in your garden they repel other types of wildlife you may welcome, such as hedgehogs which eat your slugs.

You should isolate these from the power supply or turn battery powered ones off if you are going to be spending time in the garden. Loud sounds you cannot hear are still potentially injurious to hearing.

Pros: established effectiveness in reducing cat visits, low running costs.

Cons: Expensive to buy. May be difficult to use if your own pets use your garden. Not effective on all cats - deaf ones for instance! You must turn them off when humans are in the garden.

fencing

The Cats Protection League advocate a "close boarded fence together with a parallel planted hedge" to keep a cat out of a garden, though this is not effective on all cats. The hedge is important - cats can otherwise climb and balance on top of most fences. You can buy a plastic spiked edging from garden centres for the top of the fence to try and stop cats using the fence as a pathway, or a platform to launch attacks on your birdfeeder. Alternatively a wire supported about 2cm (1inch) from the top of the fence makes it difficult for cats to stay on top of it. Jos has some more recommendations on cat-proof fencing

Cons: Expensive. A wooden fence can help cats launch an attack on birds from a height unless it is more than 2m/7ft from your feeders. Under certain rare circumstances a fence too close to a feeder can shield the attack run of an incoming sparrowhawk.

eliminate food sources

Unfortunately, spilled bird food seems to come under the definition of food sources, so you need to clear seed spilled by the birds reasonably frequently. It should go without saying - don't feed cats you don't want to return! Keep bin bags inaccessible to cats (in bins until collection)

shouting, clapping hands

to shoo the cat away (Cats Protection League)

Cons: full time job!

Squirt water using a water pistol

will discourage cats from staying in your garden. (Cats Protection League) A battery-powered water pistol gives you the greatest range. For sheer quantity of water delivered nothing beats a straight bicycle pump filled with water. This will go rusty unless dried afterwards.

Pros: cheap, may give you some entertainment.

Cons: you can't be there all the time!

Install an automatic garden spray

These detect the cats body heat and automatically sprays it with water. Expensive automated water pistol, but effective. (Cats Protection League)

Pros: Effective - almost guaranteed! Entertaining to observe.

Cons: Expensive to install, needs power and mains water. May discourage ground feeding birds by spraying them!

Spot deterrents

PVC pipe over wooden bird table stem, Squirrel baffle

Cats can climb wooden poles such as the stem of a bird table. Sliding a PVC drainpipe or a metal pipe stops the cat gaining purchase with its claws. To the same end, a squirrel baffle is a large funnel-shaped plastic shroud placed halfway up the pole, which interrupts the attack from below.

Pros: also deter squirrels, which is even more difficult that deterring cats!

Cons: ugly.

stinky plants

Cats have an excellent sense of smell, much better than humans and birds. A type of plant has been bred, called "Coleus Canina" which goes under various trade marks. A Google search will turn up your nearest supplier. American users in warmer states may have an easier time with this plant, but it will not survive a British winter unless you dig it up and shelter from frost. The smell is bad in a confined space, but okay outside unless you brush the leaves. Siting is therefore critical - the cat must come within a few feet for this to work.

Pros: effective at close ranges

Cons: intolerant of frost, limited range. A few cats do not respond at all to smells - this will not work on them

stinky stuff

generally clay balls coated in a strong pepper/mustard mix available from garden centres. Cheap, non-poisonous to wildlife due to its natural plant base, reasonably effective but must be reapplied every few days as the smell evaporates. An ongoing chore, and the smell is noticeable and not pleasant, though not dreadful.

Pros: Cheap and mostly effective

Cons: Has to be reapplied every two days and after rain. Like all smell-based repellents, needs extensive and frequent reapplication. A few cats do not respond at all to smells - this will not work on them. Stinks - the smell is not that great to human noses.

stinky predator dung

Some people reports good results with lion dung etc available commercially. Some people report no effect, so you should experiment with small amounts before investing heavily.

Cons: Expensive. Like all smell-based repellents, needs extensive and frequent reapplication. A few cats do not respond at all to smells - this will not work on them. Stinks - the smell is not that great to human noses.

Citronella

Most cats dislike the smell of citrus, and citronella sprays are available. Orange and lemon peels scattered around your garden are a cheaper, if uglier, alternative.

Pros: cheap. Not an unpleasant smell to most people

Cons: like all smell-based repellents, needs extensive and frequent reapplication. A few cats do not respond at all to smells - this will not work on them.

stakes

Some snapped in half wooden flower stakes placed around plant stems will stop cats digging those plants up or fouling the area - they should be visible from the cats viewpoint and not hidden. Cats are bright enough to avoid them.

spiky plants

Cat's don't appreciate spiky plants like holly and hawthorn - and these offer birds shelter from Sparrowhawk attacks and food berries as a bonus.

US cat owners

US cat keeping practice is very different from that common in Europe. There's only one simple recommendation, and it will protect all wild birds from your cat.


Keep your cats Indoors - for their own safety, not that of birds or other animals. Indoor cats live on average 18-20 years in the US, compared to an average of less than 5 years for outdoor US cats.



The outdoors is a much more dangerous place for cats in the United States than in Europe, and the legal remedies open to neighbors are much stronger, so the advice to keep cats indoors at all times is endorsed across the board from a number of American animal welfare organisations



Humane Society of the United States (link to HSUS Safe Cats Campaign)


American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (link)

American Veterinary Medical Association (link)

Progressive Animal Welfare Society (link)


Bird societies have joined in on this, but American cat owners will probably see the HSUS, AVMA and ASPCA advisories as more neutral!



Audubon Society (link to Cats Indoors campaign for safer birds and cats)


American Bird Conservancy (link to Cats Indoors)


So for American readers, the conclusion is simple. If you want to feed birds, keep your cat indoors - for the welfare of both cats and birds. If you insist of keeping it outdoors, then you can mitigate its effects on birds somewhat by following recommendations Jos outlined above.




None of those work - what else can I do?

Legal remedies - US

In the United States cat owners are held much more responsible for their pets than in the Old World, and cats enjoy less freedom to roam. This varies according to city and state ordinances, but under some circumstances you are entitled to live trap cats on your property and turn them in to animal shelters. Some states and cities permit an even more robust approach, but you really need to check on your local situation.

Regardless of the legal position, you should consider the implications on neighborly relations and the public image of birdlovers before exercising some of these 'rights'.

Legal remedies - UK

You don't have any. A cat is a domestic animal and therefore -

cannot be held guilty of trespass
It is an offence to steal a cat from its owner, ill treat, terrify or torture a cat
It is a serious offence to use airguns, crossbows, missiles or similar weapons to maim or injure a cat
It is an offence to put down poison or set snares for a cat.

What should I NOT do?

A love of birds - or even a dislike of cats - is no reason or excuse to practise cruelty on other creatures. If you cause harm to a cat you are perpetrating a deliberate act of cruelty to another living thing in the full knowledge of what you are doing. This is not the same as a a cat killing a bird from an instinctive need to hunt. You are held to a higher account because of your humanity.

Poison

Do not put down poison for cats. There is not excuse for this - even if you warn neighbours in advance. Poison is indiscriminate and will often be taken by other wildlife making the problem worse. The poisoned animal may be eaten by other animals compounding the mistake. Read this post.

Traps, Snares

With the exception of live trapping in the US to turn the cat in immediately to the proper authorities, this is animal cruelty, pure and simple. There is no excuse.

Cat Facts

There are about 9 million pet cats in the UK, owned by 6 million households - one in four. [1] In the United States there are 90 million cats owned by 37 million households - one in three.

Cats are natural carnivorous predators, and kill a variety of small mammals and birds. They do not stalk a particular type of prey. Cats are opportunistic - they take what they come across, and catch prey whether they are hungry or not. According to the a study by Mammal Society in 1997 birds count for only a fifth of cat kills, with nocturnal mammals faring far worse. Of the 55 million birds killed annually by British cats, three times as many house sparrows are killed than the next most numerous prey birds, blue tits.

Although 55 million birds killed a year sounds a lot, only two of the most frequently caused species are in decline (house sparrow and starling) and many garden birds are doing well - for instance the Blue Tit is increasing despite featuring highly among cat kills. The RSPB therefore concludes it is illogical to charge cat predation with causing a decline in bird populations. They acknowledged that in habitats containing particularly rare species neighbouring cats may be a conservation problem. Your garden, however, is unlikely to be one of these special areas of conservation concern!

Ethics

Much of the heat generated about cats is from non cat-owners who resent unwanted cats in their gardens. This resentment is particularly strong in the UK where their remedies are very limited. If you do feel strongly about the impact of cats on your enjoyment of your property, you should consider lobbying your council or political representatives for changes in the regulations to make the remedies for unwanted cats on your property closer to the US model. This is an issue that can only be resolved at a political/legislative level.

Owning cats gives a quarter of UK households a lot of enjoyment, so before charging cat-owners' lifestyle choices with causing the decline in birds you should consider the facts. The results of the RSPB study do not support cat predation as a significant hazard to general bird populations. Human activity in habitat destruction and changes in farming practices have a much greater effect - and some of that activity is caused by lifestyle choices of most bird lovers too.

You should make sure any remedies you do use are humane. Acts of cruelty to animals are prosecutable offences in the UK and in all states of the United States.

Links

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds


Humane Society of the United States



Cats Protection League



American Veterinary Medical Association



US Audubon Society



American Bird Conservancy



RSPB on Cats & Garden birds



Cats Indoors (Humane Society of the US Safe Cats Campaign)



Cats Protection League on Cats and Gardens



Footnotes & References

  1. Pet Foods Manufacturers Alliance link and Cats Protection League link
  2. American Pet Products Manufacturers Association link
  3. Mammal Society "Look what the Cat's Brought In" link
  4. The report indicates some suspicion that the house sparrow figure is inflated as cat owners may report any small brown birds as a sparrow.
  5. RSPB "Are Cats Causing bird declines" link
  6. Humane Society of the United States "Your Cat - Indoors or Out" link
  7. RSPB "What Can I Do - Cat Owners" link
  8. Cats Protection League, "Cats And Gardens", p9 link
  9. "RSPB endorses ultrasonic cat deterrent" link
  10. Cats Protection League, "Cats And Gardens", p12 link
  11. Cats Protection League, "Neutering", p1, link
  12. Humane Society of the United States, "Why You should Spay or Neuter your Pet" link
  13. "Cat Keeping In Britain", link
  14. Cats Protection League, "Cats And Gardens", p12 link
  15. RSPB, "Cats and the law" link
  16. RSPB "Collar That Cat to save Wildlife" link
 
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