16 May 2019
It looks as if the birds are on their own
The cat menace
“Estimates of how many creatures are killed by cats each year vary significantly”. That statement appears on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) website, immediately below the question: “Are cats causing bird decline?” To those who accuse the charity of an occasional circumspection when it comes to the welfare of birds, the statement offers an early hint that cats are going to be let off the hook, a suspicion which hardens when the estimate that it then quotes errs significantly on the low side and is, as far as it is possible to make out, based on figures at least 10 years old.
Quoting a report by the Mammal Society, the RSPB states that cats may kill as many “as 55 million birds” each year; however, as the RSPB acknowledges, that total does not include birds which are not brought home or, having been injured, then escape and die later. Neither the Mammal Society nor the RSPB makes any attempt to quantify the latter number, but there is no reason to suppose that it is not a large figure. And there is good reason to believe too, that the Mammal Society’s estimate of 55 million is some way adrift of reality; either that or British cats are slacking when compared to their cousins elsewhere. For example, a report published by the group, Nature Communications, suggested that the USA’s 86 million cats could be killing up to 3.7 billion birds annually. That works out at 43 each. Apply that to the UK’ s estimated 8 million cats and the possible numbers of bird mortalities rises to more than 370 million.
Whether or not fatalities are measured in the tens or hundreds of millions, the apparent dedication with which the RSPB seeks to exonerate the domestic cat is more redolent of an organisation focused on providing PR for felines than protection to our feathered comrades.
Here is the RSPB website again: “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide. This may be surprising, but many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease, or other forms of predation. There is evidence that cats tend to take weak or sickly birds”.
Well, yes, but the reason there is no scientific evidence to say whether or not cats are impacting upon bird populations is because no scientific study has been carried out with the specific purpose of answering the question. And on the subject of evidence, whilst it is reasonable to say that cats will take weak and sickly prey more often than the healthy, once again there is no scientific evidence to back the statement up. Unabashed by the lack of anything resembling hard fact, the RSPB concludes: “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations”. That last bit reveals the highly selective nature of the RSPB’s use of the Mammal Society’s research, because having summoned the research to its cause, it then chooses to ignore its conclusion (as detailed in reports published in 1997 and 2005) that: “the combined impact of predation by millions of cats may have a substantial effect on wildlife”.
It is true to say that studies have concluded that all wildlife populations predated by cats have coevolved over a long period of time and that therefore the numbers of birds and mammals taken by them have similarly evolved to be sustainable; however, whilst that might appear to support the RSPB’s position, what it actually does is highlight how habitat decline and the exponential growth in the importance of domestic gardens has brought concentrated bird populations into the orbit of cats. That change was picked up upon by no less a figure than doyenne of naturalists, Sir David Attenborough, who on the Christmas Day edition of the BBC’s Tweet of the Day in 2017, warned that cats were killing huge numbers of garden birds.
Those in the country pursuits sector are only too well aware of the RSPB’s highly proscriptive approach to their activities. Forever urging new regulation and demanding penalties against any whose actions (to its mind) offers a threat, perceived or otherwise, to birds, the RSPB is more or less silent on the issue of cats. Which is odd because, whilst somewhere between 55 and 300 million birds are dying every year, the RSPB is unable to summon even a fraction of the outrage that accompanies its relentless pursuit of, for example, game shooters. By contrast, presumably intensely aware that among potential membership recruits and current members there are likely to be a large number of cat lovers, the best it can come up with is to suggest that owners might voluntarily ensure that their pets have a collar and bell. No suggestion then of following the model provided by the state of Western Australia. There all cat breeders are licenced, every cat over 6 months has to be sterilised, microchipped, vaccinated and registered and local authorities can limit the number of cats in a household. Whether or not such policies could be made to work in this country, by at least arguing for a robust body of controls on domestic cats the RSPB would show that in defending the central pillar on which it stands – namely the protection and conservation of wild birds- it is prepared to risk alienating a tranche of its membership. However, with a large pension deficit to manage, a multi-million pound marketing budget and some hefty executive salaries to fund, it seems that in the fight against 8 million domestic cats the birds are going to be on their own.