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Conservation IssuesCats and Baby Birds
Hannah Suthers

Before you receive your next newsletter in May, there will be fledgling birds on the ground. They will be able to flutter, but not really able to fly for a few days yet. Some of the early ones will be Mourning Doves, House Finches, Robins, and Grackles. Later will come the Song Sparrows, Cardinals, Blue Jays, and finally fledglings of the Neotropic migrants, such as the Yellowthroat and Wood Thrush. They can be picked up and placed in a thick shrub or evergreen. Parents will not desert them if they are handled.

I want to talk to you about the ideal: baby birds outdoors and cats indoors! The reverse is cats outdoors and baby birds indoors in Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers where the volunteers try to save the mutilated and desperately infected fledglings. If the fledglings don't drown in their own blood from puncture wounds to the lungs, they infect from the bacteria in the cat's mouth. Shattered bones cannot heal properly. To put numbers to the problem here in New Jersey, I got data from some wildlife rehabilitation centers: Wounded Knee Wildlife Refuge in Tabernacle, Mercer County Wildlife Center in Lambertville, Stonehedge Conservatory at Budd Lake, and rehabilitators in Hopewell, Trenton, and Riverside. Last year from these centers only (there are 27 small bird rehabilitators in the state) the tally was 2213 songbirds brought in, and 8%-14% were known cat victims. The cat victim mortality rate was 85%. Nationwide the figure for birds killed by free-roaming cats is in the hundreds of millions, including endangered species. Among other unnatural hazards that take bird lives in staggering numbers, window strikes, tower strikes, roadside kills, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, cat kills are so unnecessary because they are preventable.

If you have been keeping kitty indoors during the winter, you have already made a good start. Please keep kitty in! Well fed cats hunt by instinct. Cats released at night get the mother bird on the nest as well as the nestlings. My observation is that roadside kills of cats are higher in warm weather. And in the spring black-legged tick nymphs, carriers of Lyme disease, will attach to kitty's ears and come indoors to your couch, rug, or bed. Cats indoors have a much longer life expectancy of seventeen or more years, compared to outdoor cats that may last two to five years before joining the millions of cats each year that are mauled, run over, poisoned, diseased, or lost.

You're convinced, I hope, to keep kitty in, and there are guidelines and help from the national campaign, "Cats Indoors: The Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats", sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy, The Humane Society of the United States, and The American Humane Association, and endorsed by the National Audubon Society. For advice, see Cats Indoors on our website. Or order a "Cats Indoors!" kit for $5.50 from the American Bird Conservancy, 1250 24th Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20037.

But what about the neighbor's cat roaming on your property, you ask? It is not a good idea to pick up and bring fledglings to a wildlife rehabilitation center because you are "afraid a cat will get them." That is like kidnapping. Rather, the responsible action is to talk with your neighbors who may not be aware that their cat is a problem. You might consider giving your neighbors a copy of this article. If repeated requests to confine the animal are unsuccessful, you could seek the help of your local animal control officer. The New Jersey domestic animal statute puts teeth in your request. This law (NJSA 4:19-15.16) says that "any person appointed for the purpose by the governing body of the municipality shall take into custody and impound or cause to be taken into custody and impounded," among other grounds, "any animal off the premises of the owner reported to or observed by a certified animal control officer to be interfering with the enjoyment of property." In other words, cat owners do not have the right to let their free-roaming cats stalk birds on your property.

How many cats are there in our area? The State Department of Health figures for the reporting year 1997 were an estimate of 1,740,000 owned cats in New Jersey, and 60,170 cats were impounded. The numbers of impounded cats by county were: Mercer 1970, Burlington 2930, Middlesex 3680, Hunterdon 980, Somerset 590, and Morris 5530. The number of feral cats in addition to the above cannot be accurately assessed. These figures give some idea of the magnitude of the threat to birds and other wildlife, without your cat being out there roaming also.

As lovers of all living creatures we do well to re-evaluate our relationship with our beloved pets, and the loved wildlife, and keep kitty indoors to reduce our threat to their health and safety, and their threat to our health and, especially, wildlife.

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Last revision: Monday, April 26, 1999 - 22:12