The house cat has changed little since its domestication eight to twelve thousand years ago. We have always valued our feline companions for their help in controlling rodents, and their ability to hunt small animals has not diminished.
But just how bad is their impact on wild birds?
Many pet owners are surprised to learn that cats kill over a billion birds annually. However, feral cats are undoubtedly the worst offenders. Some sources even speculate that cats may be the greatest human-caused threat to wildlife, and dozens of bird species have gone extinct as a result.
Cats are beloved pets with a natural instinct to hunt. It may be hard to imagine that a cuddly house cat could have such a major impact on wildlife, and it’s certainly a contentious issue. It is fair to argue that cats keep rodent numbers down, another introduced threat to native wildlife. But then, cats do not only kill rats and mice.
Accurate numbers on how many birds are killed each day or year are beyond the abilities of modern science and research. However, studies indicate that the numbers are staggering, something all cat owners should consider before letting their pets out to roam.
Read along to learn more about the effects of domestic cat predation on native birds.
Close up of a grey cat watching a sparrow on a fence
Cats kill birds because they are hardwired to hunt small animals. For many cats, the instinct to hunt small animals has nothing to do with hunger. Feral cats hunt birds to feed themselves, but even the most pampered house cats have this drive.
Many domestic cats are surplus hunters, which means they will kill many more animals than they need to if they can. This behavior probably evolved to allow cats to store a surplus of food when times are good.
Cats are well-known for their habit of playing with their prey. This behavior helps wild cats injure dangerous animals to the point where they are safe to dispatch. Playing with their food could also help cats hone their hunting skills.
Cat jumping up in the air to catch a Sparrow
Cats have had a role in the extinction of many bird species, and they continue to threaten wild birds today. The global impact of domestic cats on wild birds is not quantified, but the figure is probably in the billions.
While we don’t know exactly how many birds they kill or what sort of percentage of the world's birds are affected by cats, there is no denying that our furry friends have a real impact.
Domestic cats are generalist hunters. They kill all sorts of animals, including reptiles, mammals, and birds. Small ground-feeding birds are most at risk, but they also ambush other species when drinking water or learning to fly. Cats usually hunt small birds up to the size of a pigeon, and most of their prey weigh less than 100 g or about three ounces.
Globally, the most vulnerable birds are small species that live or nest on islands where other small carnivores are traditionally absent. Birds from these habitats have not evolved strategies to avoid predators, which makes them easy prey for introduced cats.
Continue reading to learn which birds are most affected by cats in other parts of the world.
There could be as many as eighty million feral cats in the United States, and a further ninety million kept as pets. Cats kill a wide variety of American Birds, including the following familiar backyard visitors:
Mourning Doves are one of the most frequently hunted birds by cats in the US
One study on UK housecats estimates they catch about twenty-seven million wild birds in the spring and summer alone. Cats from the same study brought no less than forty-four species of wild birds back to their homes. The following birds are frequent victims:
Australian wildlife is particularly hard hit by domestic cats and many bird species are at risk. Cats kill birds of at least 357 native Australian bird species, including at least two dozen globally threatened species.
Pet cats kill an estimated 80 million birds annually, but the problem is far worse when you consider that feral cats occupy over 99% of the continent. Some estimates put the total at nearly 380 million birds per year, which is over a million every day.
In the UK, cats frequently catch Blackbirds, that are prime targets due to their choice of garden habitat
Domestic cats are a significant problem for birds and other small animals. Of course, pets kept indoors are not an issue. Feral cats are the biggest concern, but even free-roaming suburban housecats can take a serious toll on local songbirds.
Native predators like foxes and even other birds also kill songbirds. However, cats can displace other predators, and our care allows them to survive in much higher densities than is naturally sustainable.
Cat curfews and bells are great ways to reduce the number of animals a cat can kill. However, it’s not only the birds that cats hunt that are affected. Birds have an instinctual fear of cats, so the mere presence of cats can deter up to 95% of birds in an area.
Black and white cat watching a bird from the window
Separate a bird from your cat as quickly as possible. Do not scold the cat- it is only going on its natural instinct to hunt. Confine the bird to a warm, dry enclosure like a cardboard box and contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for further advice.
Cat bites cause devastating injuries to birds. Their sharp canine teeth cause puncture wounds that, while not always visible on the surface, can be very severe. The bacteria on a cat's teeth frequently cause fatal infections, even if the wounds are relatively minor.
Cat predation causes the deaths of billions of wild birds each year, so saving injured birds when possible is definitely a good idea. However, you may need to be realistic and make some difficult judgment calls about the state of the bird and even the species of bird involved.
Concerned citizens should make efforts to rescue native birds, particularly scarce or threatened species.
American Robins are another species which get frequently hunted by cats
The most effective ways to prevent cats from killing birds is to keep them indoors or by putting a bell on your cat's collar. Keeping your pet inside is also a great way to keep them safe from road collisions and other dangers.
Keeping cats indoors can be stressful if they are used to being outdoors, so consult your vet and be prepared to provide more attention and mental stimulation for your pet. Keeping your pets inside during the day when most birds are active is another effective method, and keeping cats indoors during the fledging season can save young birds that are learning to fly.
Another great way to prevent cats from hunting birds is to put a bell on your cat’s collar. Bells allow birds and other small animals to hear the cat coming before it’s too late.
Adding a bell to your cats collar can help birds, and small animals, to alert before its to late
Legend has it that one bird species went extinct due to the predation of a single house cat! Tibbles, the pet of a lighthouse keeper, is said to have decimated the entire world population of the Lyall’s Wren. However, the cat in question was pregnant when it arrived on the tiny island just off the coast of New Zealand, and generations of kittens also played a role.
Lyall’s Wren, the world’s only known flightless songbird, is just one of a long list of birds driven to extinction by domestic cats. Felines also played a role in the disappearance of the following birds:
Cats are certainly capable of killing small birds of prey like kestrels. In fact, the Laughing Owl of New Zealand went extinct in the early twentieth century, partly due to predation by domestic cats.
Kestrels are one of the birds of prey who often get hunted and killed by cats
Both humans and cats kill a staggering amount of birds each year. People hunt birds for sport and food, but habitat loss, pollution, invasive species (cats included), and many other human-caused issues are worse threats.
The issue of domestic cats killing native songbirds is the result of humans introducing cats to all corners of the globe. In that sense, we are as much to blame as the cats.
Birds can recover after being caught by a cat, but the likelihood is very low. A study on the survival of birds brought into the RSPCA, a well-known animal welfare organization, revealed that nearly 80% of birds die from cat bites, including those that receive medical treatment.
It is impossible to say how many birds cats kill each day, but the limited data indicate that cats could be killing a million birds per day in Australia, three and a half to ten million birds per day in the USA, and over 100 000 birds each day in the United Kingdom.
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