I am a native songbird lover; I knew the species local to the wetland I grew up next to by name (and many by song) by the time I was 8. I am also a cat lover, and have had several pet kitties from the time I was 4 until today; the only time I haven't was when I spent longer periods traveling.
So it was always a difficult call for me whether to let my cat outdoors or not after I read about how outdoor cats were part of the major decline we have seen in most native bird species. Superficially, it made sense; there are millions of introduced species — our housecats — who like to eat birds — and they are not picky about whether those birds are endangered or not.
But I decided to let her out for one big reason; I live in an urban/suburban area, and I have a pretty regular problem in my garden with moles and voles - and I have a cat that naturally loves to hunt them. My other alternatives to keep the moles in check are a lot more expensive and a lot less natural than letting my cat do what she loves to do. I crossed my fingers and hoped that she would stick to the rodents and leave the birds alone.
From what I can tell, she has. I regularly see her chasing and eating insects, the aforementioned burrowing rodents, and occasionally she harasses a squirrel (though she's never really gone after one of those). I've never seen her even try to stalk a bird, have never found feathers, and haven't had any bird carcasses turn up — like those of the moles and voles regularly do — neatly placed next to the back doormat.
My own experience has been borne out by a recent study from the University of Georgia, which hooked 60 regular house cats that go outside up to what they have dubbed "kitty cams" (small video cameras that hung around the cats' necks) for a week to see what the cats really were up to when they weren't snuggled in their owners' laps. The results won't surprise many longtime cat owners.
Turns out that many cats are just as lazy as they seem; a full 56 percent of the cats did no hunting, stalking or killing at all. And birds were low on the list of favored snacks — most hunting cats went after reptiles and insects first; birds were a "minority of the prey items," Dr. Kerrie Anne Loyd, an ecologist who headed the study, told the New York Times. Some cats also enjoyed roadkill and supped on sewage water, and a few "cheated" on their owners, spending time in other homes to receive treats and affection.
Do house cats sometimes catch and eat native birds? Absolutely. But the number may be far smaller than predictions and extrapolations suggest. And when it comes to numbers, the vast, vast majority of birds are killed due to habitat destruction and building collisions, not house cats.
Of course, the absolute safest place for a cat is indoors, according to the Humane Society. They are less likely to get sick, eaten, run over or engage in potentially dangerous fights with wild animals like raccoons and skunks. But frankly, my cat loves to be outside, and is much healthier when she is (she gets really, really fat when she has stayed indoors, not to mention crabby). She naturally keeps the rodent population down, eliminating the need for environmentally destructive methods to keep my garden from becoming one big mole partytown.
It's a tough call, but for me, and my cat, it seems that her being an outdoor cat works for us.
Related pet story on MNN: Outdoor cats are prolific killers, study finds
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