Bird enthusiasts fear stray cats
By Elizabeth Putnam
Wausau Daily Herald
Monday, March 22, 2004
Conservationists worry the stray and free-roaming cat population is having a disastrous effect on an already unstable bird population.
"Stray and feral cats have an incredible effect on wildlife," said Marge Gibson, executive director of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo. "They are most destructive to field birds."
The population of feral, or wild, cats is a national problem. Such cats prey on birds and other wildlife, killing millions of birds and small mammals each year. Wausau-area bird watchers say the bird population already has suffered losses in the past few years to the West Nile virus.
In the United States, there are an estimated 70 million free-roaming cats, and thousands of kittens are born each day because of uncontrolled breeding, according to the U.S. Humane Society.
According to a 1995 University of Wisconsin study, rural free-roaming cats killed at least 7.8 million birds and possibly as many as 217 million in Wisconsin alone over a four-year period.
In Wausau, the estimated number of free-roaming cats and their effect on the bird population is largely un¬known. Judy Lombard, manager of the Humane Society of Marathon County, said the shelter takes in about 1,000 cats a year. About 60 percent of those cats are adopted. The remaining 40 percent are euthanized.
"There is a very large wild cat population. It is a health problem and a concern for the wildlife population," Lombard said. "We really can't gauge how many cats there are out there. But there are many."
The cats can be found behind shopping areas and in alleys, parks, abandoned buildings and rural areas, Lombard said. The Humane Society does not have the authority to pick up nuisance animals but does offer humane traps to capture animals.
The cost of the wild cat population can be staggering. Animal control agencies and shelters spend millions of dollars a year - most of which is taxpayers' money. Mara¬thon County earmarked $50,500 this year for the Humane Society.
It's the unknown number of wild cats that frightens members of the Wausau Bird Club.
Fewer birds have been seen in the area in the past few years. The club's most recent bird count was in December, and the results were inconclusive because the weather was bad and the count was not as well-coordinated as it usually is.
Birders counted far fewer feathered friends in 2002, compared to the 2001 Christmas-season numbers. Totals dropped by 2,125 birds in 2002, according to observations and results compiled by the Wausau Bird Club for the National Audubon Society.
"It could be cats. It could be West Nile. There are many variables," said Jane Raymond-Wood, Wausau Bird Club member. "Always keep your cats inside."
There are no easy solutions, said Linda Winter, director of Cats Indoors, an initiative of the American Bird Conservancy that encourages pet owners to keep their cats indoors to reduce small-mammal deaths.
"Cats exacerbate the problem of bird deaths," Winter said. "People need to be more aware of this and be more responsible keeping cats indoors."
Spaying and neutering cats and more stringent animal control policies also fight the problem, she said.
By the numbers73 million: The estimated number of free roaming cats in the United States. It is equal to the number of pet cats.
420,000: The number of offspring that a pair of breeding cats, which can have two or more litters a year, can exponentially produce in a seven year period.
0: The number of human rabies cases through bites from free roaming cats since 1975.
Source The American Veterinary Medical Association