The “It’s just nature” Myth
North American birds are facing pressures on all sides, and as pet owners and animal lovers, we can do our part to help!
Growing up we had three outdoor cats, Pikachu, Angel and Willow. I’ve loved animals all my life and when our cats would bring home baby bunnies, birds and even a mole, it was upsetting. My parents would tell me that is was just nature. If the birds were still alive, I’d take them to my elderly neighbours who loved birds and we would rehabilitate them together. They had the same response; cat hunting is just part of nature.
I believed it too: all animals are predators or prey or, as in the case of the domestic cat, both.
I found my current cat, Broccoli, in a frozen shed along with his siblings at 3 weeks old. They had worms, fleas and Broccoli was extremely weak. His mother was my roommate’s outdoor cat.
So is it just nature?
The domestic cat first appeared in North America with the arrival of European ships approximately 500 years ago. This timeline is very short in terms of evolutionary change, and birds have not had enough time to adapt to the presence of a new predator. (Animals in the same area evolve together in a complex relationship over thousands of years, each of predator and prey adapting to try to get an upper hand for survival.)
Additionally, cats are subsidized by their human guardians. We feed and care for them, vaccinate them against diseases and take them to the vet when they’re sick. Wildlife don’t have the same advantages. When we keep animals as pets, we fundamentally alter their relationship with nature and other animals. Being a pet isn’t “natural” for cats or any other animal, and as a society, we need to accept that reality.
Sadly, most Canadian bird species have declined over the last 40 years (at least!), some by as much as 90%. Cats aren’t primarily responsible for the declines, but they certainly make a bad situation worse.
This Eastern Screech owl fledgling was brought to us at the wildlife rehab center after a cat attack.
One of many hardships for North American Birds
All of the greatest threats to birds trace to humans, either directly or indirectly. Indirect causes include habitat loss and climate change, and direct causes include hunting/trapping, pollution, window collisions and outdoor cats (among others). About 75% of Canada’s birds are migratory, and those birds face obstacles all the way from Canada to Central or South America and back again.
Range of the Yellow-rumped warbler. Yellow on map is summer/breeding grounds, blue is wintering grounds and green is year-round habitat. Graphic by Ken Thomas, distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license.
For example, in Latin America, some songbirds are trapped as a part of the illegal pet trade. Many bird species’ winter homes down south have suffered enormous habitat loss.
Given that cats are only one of many reasons for bird declines, does it really make a difference to prevent them from hunting? The short answer is yes. Birds need all the help they can get. There are a lot of cats in North America – somewhere between 12 and 14 million in Canada alone. In 2013, Environment Canada estimated that cats are the top directly human-related threat to birds.
Cats are the most popular pet in Canada and if you own one, you know why. I got my first cat, Broccoli, by chance while in university. I found him in a frozen shed along with his siblings at 3 weeks old. They had worms, fleas and Broccoli was extremely weak. His mother was my roommate’s outdoor cat. I fell in love with him and we have been inseparable ever since. Broccoli had a difficult start to life and I’d seen so many of the dangers to outdoor cats first hand while volunteering at the local humane society. This coupled with seeing cat-related bird deaths while working in wildlife rehab, I decided all my cats would be indoor. (See the photo of him in all his healthy, happy glory at the top of this article.) Broccoli is leash trained so he can still enjoy the outdoors without any dangers to him or birds.
The North American songbird population continues to decline and although we may not be able to fix all of the problems they are facing, as pet owners, we can help give them better odds for their journey through life by keeping our cats safe & supervised if they go outdoors.
Author Bio: Caitlin Brant recently graduated with a Master’s in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England and lives in British Columbia, Canada. She’s previously worked in wildlife rehabilitation and has two indoor cats, Broccoli and Bean Sprout.