MISSISSIPPI RIVER TIDBITS

"Kitty," "Kitty," "Kitty"-

A Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Kitty as a ruthless predator...

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by Ruth Nissen, Wisconsin DNR

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That kitty sleeping in the sun in the window, curled up in the middle of the bed or chasing that bit of yarn rolled up in a ball may be hard to picture as a ruthless predator, but that is just what happens when "kitty" goes outdoors. Many cat owners want their cat to kill the mice or chipmunks around the yard or barn, and indeed, these "trophies" may be what they find on their doorstep in the morning, but unfortunately "kitty" is also killing other animals. Trophies represent only 50% of what cats actually kill. In addition to the rats, mice and rabbits that homeowners frequently regard as pests, prey items include native songbirds and other mammals.

Rural cats do the most damage because they have access to the most wildlife but urban and suburban cats add to the toll. The term "Rural," however includes the cats that live in homes on the edge of town, homes nestled into secluded valleys, and new housing developments in the countryside, as well as farms. These types of housing situations are rapidly increasing along the Mississippi River and throughout the Coulee region, as people (and their cats) move away from town to live closer to nature, or to enjoy the peace and quiet in addition to a spectacular view. Recent research suggests that rural free-ranging domestic cats in Wisconsin may be killing between 8 and 217 million birds each year.

This time of year the threat to birds is increased as nesting birds and the recently fledged young are vulnerable. Cats can kill a lot of eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, song sparrows, and other ground nesting birds, or birds that feed on the ground like robins. Many of the ground
nesters are grassland birds that have become "species of concern" because of severely diminishing numbers due to loss of habitat.

Studies have shown that nearly all free-ranging cats, no matter how well-fed are effective predators. A well-fed cat merely eats less of what it kills. However, well-fed, neutered females are more likely to stay close to "home" and thus provide rodent control in your yard rather than doing their kifling in a nearby wild area.

Handicapping Seldom Succeeds

Many cat owners who are also wildlife appreciators have tried a variety of techniques to handicap the cat in the eternal battle between cats and birds. Unfortunately it is hard to deter a determined cat! Bells on the cat's collar do not alert birds to the presence of a predator. Only birds who have survived an attack by a cat wearing a bell are likely to recognize the tiniding sound as dangerous. In addition, many resourceful cats learn to stalk quietly even while wearing a beli. Declawing a cat may help to prevent damage to furniture, but many cats are very adept at catching prey even without claws. They merely bat the bird down with their paw and grab it with their teeth. Neither does severe scolding nor spanking deter a cat from hunting birds, they merely do it when the owner isn't around. In this case "Tweety" is definitely at a disadvantage.

How to minimize your cat's impact on wildlife.The only reliable method of prevention is to keep the cat indoors. It is a difficult dilemma facing every cat owner that moves to the country because they appreciate watching wildlife. But this method also insures that your pet won't be affected by unwanted reproduction, reduces cat fights, injuries, and disease, and keeps your pet from being struck by an automobile. An excellent publication "Cats and Wildlife- A Conservation Dilemma," available at county Extension offices, reviews the far reaching impacts that uncontrolled predation from cats poses on wildlife and offers suggestions on how to minimize the effects of cats if they cannot be kept indoors.

Cats are not "bad" because they follow their predatory instinct. It is a question of the balance of nature. Cats have become a predator that is not subject to the limit on numbers that nature imposes on other native predators. In some parts of rural Wisconsin cats are several times more abundant that all mid-sized native predators (such as fox, racoon and skunks) combined. Nature no longer controls housecat numbers only cat owners can.

Recommendations for Minimizing Cat Impact

Some recommendations from "Cats and Wildlife- A Conservation Dilemma" for concerned cat owners on how to minimize the impacts of cats on wildlife.

Keep your pet cat indoors if at all possible.
Don't support anymore cats than you need for companionship or pest control and do what you can to minimize their time outdoors.
Spay and neuter your cats to keep numbers down.
Don't dispose of unwanted cats by releasing them in rural areas or in wild areas.
Don't feed stray cats.


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This is part of an ongoing series about the plants, fish, wildlife and issues pertaining to the Mississippi River. For questions or comments, write to Mississippi River Tidbits, Wisconsin DNR, State Office Bldg., Rm. 104,3550 Mormon Coulee Rd., La Crosse, WI 54601