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Cats and Birds

[Feline Characters in New York City]  [Witch Cats and Cat Ghosts]  [Cats and Birds]  [The Case of the Homeless Cat]  [More Cat Articles] 

( Originally Published 1936 )

"Cats," said a bird-lover whose name I know but will not mention, "are the sly and malicious enemies of birds. The cat is the only animal that is not taxed; it ought to be taxed to death."

Putting aside the question of what the rats would do to us if the cats were not here to check them, one wonders at these bird-lovers who ignore the many different enemies that birds have, including the two-legged, featherless ones, and, as another sort of bird-lover, an old Connecticut man, said in a letter to the New York Herald Tribune a few years ago, "blame it all on the cat."

This man, Louis Snyder, had lived all his life in rural places. After pointing out that many birds have been driven away by the destruction of woods and swamps and thickets that were their natural sanctuaries, he wrote:

"The red squirrel is very destructive to bird life, destroying nests and eating eggs. Common rats prey on birds that raise their broods on the ground. The cats catch the red squirrels and the rats and so are a protection to bird life, taking a small toll for the good they do. The hawk and the owl and the crow constantly prey on bird life, the hawk by day, the owl by night. Crows destroy the eggs and eat the fledglings. Yet it is all blamed on the cat. Weasels also come in for their toll. The cat catches the weasel. Give the cat credit."

Mr. Snyder did not mention those other enemies of birds, wanton human hunters, yet no killer is more malicious. Consider the case of the robins that winter in Big Laurel Bottoms, in Virginia. Hundreds of thousands of them have for years regarded this place as a refuge. Now, it seems, midnight hunting parties are the vogue. The noble hunters go into the undergrowth where the robins roost, bewilder them with lights, and strike them down with wooden paddles. As many as a thousand robins have been killed in one night.

What use can these men make of all these pitiful dead robins? They kill for the lust of killing. The authorities in Virginia are seeking to stop this outrage, and thirty of the killers have been prosecuted and fined $4.25 each. But this seems an inadequate punishment. Cats have never organized in groups to go out and do mass killing of birds, yet one hears their lives demanded as enemies of birds.

In New York State in the short space of three months, in 1934, one hundred and fifty men and boys were arrested for killing song birds. They all had dead birds; one man was caught with eighty-four slaughtered robins, thrushes, blackbirds and other songsters in his bag. In Central Park, in the heart of Manhattan, men and boys have been found bringing down small birds with a slingshot. And for each who is apprehended it is certain that there are many who engage in this slaughter unseen.

The friends of cats do not deny that some cats kill birds, but they are amazed at the extraordinary statistics that anti-cat people offer-each set of figures different from the others. The president of the National Association of Audubon Societies stated in 1933 that there were 60,000,00o cats in the United States and that they killed 600,000,000 birds in a year. The Nature Magazine not long afterward printed an article putting the number of cats in the United States at i20,000,000, of which, the writer said, 40,000,000 were owned and 80,000,00o strays.

Which of these estimates, if either, is correct? When were these censuses taken? I am sure that if there had been a census of cats we should have heard of it in the newspapers and from owners of cats.

The editor of the National Humane Review was surprised to read in the Nature Magazine that there are 40,000,000 owned cats in this country, because there are less than 30,000,000 families, and he suspected that a good many of the less than 30,000,00o do not keep cats. So he asked some of the employees of the American Humane Association to observe conditions in their respective neighborhoods.

One reported three cats to sixteen families; another, two cats to twenty-four families; a third, only one cat to ten families; a fourth, nine families with not a single cat; a fifth, a lone cat to sixteen families. I think this is not unusual. In one street in my town, a short street, there are eight children, seven dogs, and one cat and a kitten. This cat occasionally kills a bird, but not more than two or three in a season, though there is a bird bath on the place and many winged visitors about. She is always soundly punished for it, and it is a long time before she repeats the crime.

The National Humane Review also made some investigations in the matter of the alleged 80,000,00o stray cats, and the charge that many live in the woods on the birds they kill. It quotes a Massachusetts woman whose father was an ornithologist. "I have had a great deal to do with cats, both pets and strays," she says. "I have yet to see the cat who, wholly unsheltered, would live through one of our northern winters. In the cities or about farms with deserted buildings, even holes in verandas, they may manage to live one winter out. But in the open, never."

A naturalist who practically lives in the great outdoors testified that in all his wanderings he had seen but three cats who had gone wild; stray cats, he said, stayed close to human habitations. And this is true. The habit of dependence has overlaid the primitive instincts, and these strays are generally hoping for a handout, or an opportunity to join some family. Seldom, outside of fiction, is there anything like the animal in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's short story, "The Cat," who with his hunting maintained for an entire winter not only himself but the helpless human stray with whom he shared a hut in the wilderness.

It is asserted that a cat has been seen to devour twenty-four birds in a day. It seems impossible that a cat could do this and not burst, but there may be cat abnormities just as there are men who eat two dozen pies or a hundred oysters at a sitting. Of course it is not fair to say that because one cat ate twenty-four birds in a day 60,000,00o cats will destroy 1,440,000,000 birds in a year, but that is the way these cat statistics work. There is one thing, the cat outlasts its enemies. It was the great hope of Rockwell Sayer, of Chicago, that he might live long enough to see the last cat executed, and he spent a great deal of money printing and circulating anti-cat literature, and giving presents to people who were opposed to cats. But he is dead. The cats remain.

And now how is the cat-owner, who knows that hunting is a natural feline instinct, to persuade his or her cat that it is right to kill mice and rats but wrong to kill birds? It is a fine ethical point, but with an intelligent cat patience generally does the trick. You must begin early. It is wonderful what can be done with a kitten by starting right. Otis, a cat owned by L. G. Walker of Towanda, Pennsylvania, who was trained in his youth not to harm the Walker canaries, picked up a half-frozen grackle that he found in the snow, carried it home, and laid it before the fire. Then he watched approvingly while his master thawed the bird out, fed it, and released it.

If your kitten begins to stalk the birds that fly into the yard, seize it in the act if possible, give it a stern talking to, and shut it up in the house. If your cat catches a bird, take the bird away if you can, give the offender a spanking, and shut it up without its dinner. Never pass over an offense. In case a cat simply will not be taught, it should be confined during the nesting season if you live where there are birds.

Some people advocate licensing cats "to save the birds." William E. Brigham, managing director of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, which handles five thousand cats in a month, once explained why this cannot be done. The license could not be enforced and thousands of the poor cats would be thrown out to seek a living in garbage cans or from the trees where the birds live. They would breed, and the birds would be in more danger than ever. Also, Mr. Brigham pointed out, a licensed cat would have to wear a collar, and "a cat with a collar is continually getting hung up somewhere, on a fence or a limb, and some of them hang for days before they are found, often dead."

Owners who bell their cats to warn the birds must face this danger of the collar. Belling is a law in some communities, but experienced bird people do not think that it does much good. Young birds especially seldom heed the bell. If you do bell your pet, use an elastic collar. Some shops sell these collars, which are supposed to stretch and slip over the cat's head if it is caught and struggles.

The destruction of birds by vagrant cats is a problem that is up to mankind. Every motorist who drops unwanted cats in the woods or on a country road is spreading the evil; what is a starving cat to do but catch game if he can?