Cats and Garden Birds

Cats and Garden Birds

There is no doubt that pet cats kill garden birds.

Information on the impact cats might have on birds in gardens has been received from the Royal Society for the protection of Birds in the UK whose research makes interesting reading for people who are distressed and angered (including the owners of the cats) when a pet cat catches and kills a bird. Please note that we are specifically referring to pet cats in this article – not to the homeless or “feral” cats.

The point of this article too is to put forward ideas on how to reduce attacks on garden birds by cats.

Cats are individuals and their behaviour varies widely. Some are prolific hunters. They will catch whatever they come across rather than actively hunting a particular species. This means that whatever is most abundant or most vulnerable is most likely to be caught. Cats will catch prey regardless of whether or not they are hungry.

A recent survey by the Mammal Society in the UK revealed that birds form a small proportion (around 20%) of all the creatures caught by cats. Most of the rest of the catches were rodents. Most of the birds were taken around dawn or dusk, during the breeding season or in mid-winter.

It may seem that cats catch more birds than small mammals but this is because birds are mainly caught during the day so you are more likely to witness this.

Estimates of how many birds are killed by cats vary significantly. The UK estimate is that cats catch up to 275 million prey items a year, of which 55 million are birds. These are the numbers of prey items known to have been caught. It will never be known how many more were caught by cats but were not brought home or how many escaped but subsequently died.

That’s the bad news.

There is comfort in knowing that evidence suggests that cats tend to take weak or sickly birds. It is a fact that of the millions of baby birds hatched each year, most will die before they reach their breeding age. It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season. Only if the predation of cats was additional to these other causes, was it deduced that predation by cats might have a serious impact on bird populations.

Bird species that have undergone the most serious population declines in Britain rarely encounter cats. Research shows that their decline in numbers is caused by habitat change or loss, particularly on farmland. Nevertheless, four species declining across the UK are “garden breeders” and it would be prudent to try and reduce cat predation.

What can I personally do?

  • Put a bell on the collars of cats. (In addition, attach the cat’s metal ID tag alongside the bell, as the tinkling will make successful stalking a great deal more difficult even for the most experienced hunters!)
  • The collar must be correctly fitted and have a quick-release mechanism for the cat to free itself should it become snagged.
  • Cats should always be well-fed and cared for. This may lessen the predation urge and may also encourage them to stay at home.
  • Keep your cat indoors at times when birds are most vulnerable: at least an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise as well as immediately after bad weather, to allow birds to come out and feed.
  • Take unwanted cats to your nearest SPCA for re-homing.
  • Neutered cats are less likely to wander.
Cat with Bell

Is there any such thing as a bird-friendly garden?

  • Where cats may be a problem, avoid putting food on the ground but use a bird table where cats cannot reach it.
  • Place feeders high off the ground but away from surfaces from which a cat could jump.
  • Place spiny plants or an uncomfortable surface around the base of the feeding station to prevent cats sitting underneath.
  • Place an upturned tin or cone underneath the feeding table to prevent cats from climbing the post.
  • Position any nest boxes where cats cannot reach them or sit close to them (preventing the parent birds from getting to the box).

Cats and the Law

  • Cats are protected by the Animals Protection Act No 71 of 1962 and it is an offence to trap, poison, injure or kill them.
  • The welfare of cats cannot be ignored. Remember that cats, even if they are unwelcome in your garden, may be someone’s much-loved pets, perhaps of a child or an elderly person living alone.