Friday, July 21, 2006

A Cat Trap Stops House Cat Predation of Birds and Small Animals

adult bullfrog

Over the years, we've put up with three neighborhood cats hunting in our yard. The cat next door cleaned all the bullfrogs out of our little pond, one by one. They were big frogs, 6 or 7 inches long not counting their legs. I loved the sound of their croaks on summer evenings. We live on a quarter-acre lot in suburbia, but the frogs migrated in to the pond on their own. We were so happy to have them. When they croaked, I could shut my eyes and pretend to be in the country. I loved them.

I had "trained" one of the bullfrogs to snatch crickets out of my hand. I started by tossing a cricket from the yard onto the surface of the pond. The frog would launch himself from his rock with his mouth wide open, engulfing the cricket as he hit the water. Gradually I began tossing the cricket closer to myself. Then I just held onto the cricket at water level, and the frog would jump and grab it while I still held it. Eventually, as I held it higher, he learned to leap a foot or more from the water and snatch it from my hand. Frogs have rudimentary teeth in the roof of their mouth - his "teeth" would rake the top of my fingers, but it didn't really hurt. I loved that old frog. I was only able to train one, the others were too timid.

I often saw the white cat from next door crouched by the pond, watching the frogs. I hoped the frogs were safe since they mostly sat on rocks surrounded by water. But they weren't safe. One day I found the chewed up remains of one of the frogs in the yard. Just the legs were left. After that, the white cat was on the prowl around the clock until all the frogs were gone. Even my cricket-eating frog. I was so mad!

Then the neighbors across the street got two Siamese cats. The slinky cats were only occasional visitors until fairly recently. The wildlife has been increasing on our street, I don't know why. More neighbors have gotten birdfeeders - that's part of it. Birdfeeders support small mammal populations too, who eat the seed that falls out. Our bird list for our end of our street is 109 species, not bad for a suburban land-locked area with no extensive woods nearby. We have a lot of rabbits, eastern chipmunks, gray squirrels, short-tailed shrews, and cotton rats in the yards on our end of the street. We have hawks and owls too, and it's fine with me if they eat all the wildlife they want. They're native predators and they were here before we were. Unlike the house cats.

A few months ago, the Siamese cats became a daily fixture in our yard. I work at a desk in the front bay window that faces out over the lawn. I spotted the cats stalking chipmunks and baby birds in the front yard this spring - which always sent me blasting out the door after them, a couple of times chasing the cats back home in my pajamas. More than once I banged on the neighbors' door to protest.

But finally I asked the cat owners if I could talk to them in a calm moment. We've had cordial relations with them for years, if not cozy. I printed out a bunch of articles to take with me and met them on their front steps. As I described in a May 13 post, I started by telling them about an article from HSUS, the Humane Society, about dangers for free-roaming cats. HSUS' most compelling point is that free-roaming cats have an average life span of less than three years, compared to 15-18 years for indoor-only cats. Most roamers are killed by cars. Two-thirds of vets recommend keeping cats indoors at all times.

I also printed out for the neighbors a document from the American Bird Conservancy called "Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats." It's a really interesting paper full of cat stats, such as:

35% of cat owners keep their cats indoors all the time
53% of cat owners are concerned about cat predation
64% of survey respondents believe putting bells on cats keeps them from killing (untrue)
70% of respondents believe cats should be regulated to prevent roaming

I gave my neighbors these printouts, then I cut to the chase - the wildlife issue. Songbirds in the U.S. are threatened by the growing human population in lots of different ways. The most serious threat is habitat loss. Second is collision with windows. And third is predation by house cats. A recent Wisconsin study cited by the US Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that house cats kill more than 39 million birds every year in Wisconsin alone. Nationwide estimates are as high as a billion songbirds per year killed by domestic cats.

Lots of people will say that cats killing prey is "just Mother Nature." But there's nothing natural about house cat predation. They're not native to the U.S., for one thing. They're an introduced species, like kudzu or pigeons. The European colonists brought them here and they're increasing like crazy in the U.S. - from 30 million in 1970 to 60 million in 1990 (according to a University of Maine paper).

Most people don't make the distinction between house cats and native predators like hawks, owls, bobcats, foxes, weasels, etc. Populations of native predators are in balance with their prey. If prey numbers decrease, then predator populations decrease too, giving the prey population a chance to rebound. Plus, wild predator populations struggle with other challenges, such as parasites, disease, harsh winters. They’re not always in prime condition, not always efficient at catching prey. They may be able to catch only the sick, the weak, the old, the very young.

House cats operate totally outside of that balance of nature, because they're sustained artificially by their owners. They’re usually well fed, in good health. They’re very efficient predators, able to easily catch small mammals and birds in prime breeding condition. Being well-fed does not diminish cats’ hunting instinct – hunger and hunting are controlled by different parts of the brain. Not only that, but domestic cats prowl in much higher densities than natural predators. There might be a single Great Horned Owl in 10 square miles, but there’s a healthy house cat in every third house.

So back to the neighbors. I laid out my arguments in as brief and friendly a manner as I could, and gave them the articles. "So what is it you want us to do?" asked the wife of the family politely. “I’m asking you to keep the cats out of our yard,” I said, as nicely as possible. "We can't do that," she said. She explained that the cats have been outside for years, and they like it outside. I knew that. But I had said my thing, it was time to give it a rest. So I thanked them for listening to me and, leaving my articles behind, I walked back across the street, back home.

After our talk, the kitties' tours of the neighborhood and the wildlife killings continued unabated. A talk with five other neighbors revealed that other people on the street objected to the cats' marauding habits too.

So I called Animal Control and the county Conservation Science office. Both county offices said they would bring me a live cat trap. Animal Control said if I caught one of the cats, they would come pick it up and take it away, and the neighbors could retrieve it unharmed. So I had a trap delivered, for free. The cat-owning neighbors saw the trap being delivered. They were not happy about it, and came over to tell us so. But it had its effect. I never actually set the trap. Rather I left it in the yard for a few days. I also took every opportunity to chase the cats noisily out of the yard, slamming the door on my way out to startle them.

A couple of weeks after our first conversation, I noticed that the neighbors had put bells on the kitties' collars. I know bells aren't effective, but it was a sign that the neighbors were making an effort. I began to see the kitties less and less. I think they were gradually keeping the kitties inside more. I'm happy to say that I rarely see the cats now. Maybe twice a week I see them in their own yard in late afternoon. I haven't seen them on my side of the street for three or four weeks. I also haven't seen any dead birds or wounded mammals on our end of the street for weeks. Yay!!

I know cats are at the mercy of their instincts, but cat owners are able to make choices. There is no good reason to let house cats roam freely. A 2006 paper by ecologists in Wisconsin lists a number a resources and other papers that will be useful to anyone researching this topic.

I would love to hear from readers any other stories of neighborhood cats on the prowl, with good endings or bad.


Myke said...

We keep our 3 cats inside, all the time. They still manage to catch the occasional lizard, from inside a screened-in porch.

A fun way to alienate unwanted cats is to shoot them with one of those large, pump up squirt guns. Cats hate getting wet and the sound scares the pee out of them. (You really have to be stealthy to sneak up on a cat.)

Several years ago a pack of coyotes moved into our neighborhood. The outside cats suffered a karmic shift and became prey. Now there are many fewer outside cats and many more small critters running around.

Myke (

megaselia said...

I heard Jeff Barrie speak yesterday (Producer of the dynamite! video "Kilowatt Ours" that you (Sally) reviewed recently) and in response to a question asked by the audience, he said that house cats kill 100 million songbirds every year in the US - he was comparing this number with the estimated 7000 birds that die each year from wind farms.

Anonymous said...

Traps work very well, I have trapped 4 cats in 1 month and they do not have 9 lives. If the owners want to keep their cat safe, keep it inside their house. It's the Law.

Anonymous said...

As a cat lover and former owner, I don't think any cats should be roaming where they can be run over, stolen, or contract disease (some of which are spreadable to humans and one that can result in a child being born blind YIKES).

I used to just shake my head when I'd see that. Once I learned about the damage they do to songbirds, though, I would tolerate no more. In my case, I did have to trap cats on two occasions. Live traps baited with canned fish poured on some newspaper are highly effective. I prefer to trap and take them to a shelter where I know they will be properly cared for rather than letting animal control get involved.

Anonymous said...

As a cat lover and former owner, I don't think any cats should be roaming where they can be run over, stolen, or contract disease (some of which are spreadable to humans and one that can result in a child being born blind YIKES).

I used to just shake my head when I'd see that. Once I learned about the damage they do to songbirds, though, I would tolerate no more. In my case, I did have to trap cats on two occasions. Live traps baited with canned fish poured on some newspaper are highly effective. I prefer to trap and take them to a shelter where I know they will be properly cared for rather than letting animal control get involved.

Bird Advocate said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your entire post. Here's a post from my blog about my losing a little friend of mine.

Do Mockingbirds "Fly Over the Rainbow Bridge?" I often read or hear where someone's pet they loved was last seen "Crossing The Rainbow Bridge." I seldom get publicly emotional about an animal, though in my long years I have lost loyal dogs, birds, and even a beautiful silver miniature horse stallion that was still-born in my back yard.
I'd have to say the Texas Mockingbird is one of my favorite birds, mostly because of how closely I've observed them. We rehabilitated and released an injured Mockingbird youngster we found in our yard a number of years ago. The next year he returned to our feeders and hung around the yard, and then the next year a pair nested in a short bushy tree in our front yard.
There was no proof, of course, that it was him, except possibly that he stayed so near and appeared to trust us when we went to the car or mailbox, or to shoo away the neighbor's cats when he'd strafe them.
We'd see him each spring for several days in the top of a particular tree in our back yard. He'd fly up several feet, hover, then alight back in the tree. It looked like he was flopping back down, and the tree leaves appeared as if he were compressing them.
We had to conclude this was his mating performance because within a few days they'd build another nest in the same tree in our front yard. Luckily the tree got taller and bushier each year. We'd long since stopped feeding any of the birds because of the neighbor's cats and we had even considered deterring the pair from nesting here.
They had mixed success for a number of years. We ran the cats off whenever we saw them near the front yard, he'd strafe them, and I think most of the fledglings survived. This last spring he may have slowed with age. One of the cats left his wings on my front porch. Do Mockingbirds "Fly Over the Rainbow Bridge?" I don't know, but I miss that little guy! Cat owners, please keep your pets indoors!

Anonymous said...

Cats should not be alowed to roam free, especialy in rural areas. They are killing machines. Traps are only effective for some cats.
Cats are nocturnal. Be wary of cat lovers putting their cats ouside in the evening. My neighbors tried the night approach and I learned to hunt them at night.