27/03/2002
Share 

Cats!

dec55027-e61f-4bd9-bc88-8f8ebbc5fbb1

It’s a life or death struggle that was played out long before Sylvester first set his beady eyes on Tweety Pie.

The cat, a natural-born hunting machine equipped with razor-sharp claws and finely tuned senses, has been the avowed enemy of the hapless bird for millions of years.

Today the drama is still being acted out in gardens across the land as cunning moggies capture and kill, often with a sadistic, playful glee, some our best loved feathered friends. The first most of us ever realise that our beloved pet Tansy, Sophie or Molly have turned assassin is when they deposit a mangled corpse at the back door.

But scientists hope the day of the killer cat is numbered.

A major study into the hunting habits of the domestic feline will take place this spring, and visitors to the BirdGuides website are being asked to take part in an experiment which could help tip the natural balance in favour of the robin, blackbird, blue tit and song thrush.

Co-ordinating the study is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds who, in conjunction with Glasgow University, the Wildlife Trusts and the Mammal Society, are looking at ways of reducing the slaughter of garden birds.

The true impact of cats on wild bird populations has become a hoary question in conservation circles. Last year a study by the Mammal Society suggested that cats in Britain could be responsible for killing 275 million creatures each year. The breakdown looks horrific: 100 million small mammals, 55 million birds, twenty million reptiles, amphibians and assorted bits and pieces.

To reach these figures, the Mammal Society studied the 14,000 prey items dragged by 964 cats into 600 homes.

Cat lovers have contested the findings and the RSPB states openly that although felines are killing birds regularly, it has not become a conservation problem in the UK.

That said, staff at the RSPB headquarters have to deal with hundreds of calls a year from upset members of the public reporting cats killing birds in their gardens.

It is hoped that this summer’s experiment will at last help find humane and dependable ways of reducing the impact on wildlife.

Content continues after advertisements

The ideas being tested range from state-of-the-art electronic gadgetry used by the security industry to other tried and tested techniques that have been around for decades.

Researchers are already monitoring sites where hi-tech anti-burglar devices have been installed to see their effectiveness in deterring cat attacks. But volunteers are also needed to test a range of different cat collars, and this is where BirdGuides subscribers can play a key role.

All participants in the survey will be sent three different types of collar for their pet cat to wear for a month at a time in random order. All collars are safety approved.

For one period, the pet cat will wear a plain collar, while a collar fitted with a loud, tinkly bell will be worn another time. The third type of collar being tested is equipped with a sophisticated sonic device which gives outs a bleep every few seconds to scare off birds as the cat approaches.

The only requirement to take part in the study is that you own only one cat, that it does not normally wear a collar and it is also a proven hunter.

During the survey period, readers will be asked to keep a record of all the prey their cat brings home.

The RSPB is working closely with the RSPCA and the Feline Advisory Bureau to ensure that none of the tested devices compromise the welfare of cats.

Cat ownership is massive in the UK and among members of the RSPB it’s even higher than the national average. A recent survey revealed that 29 per cent of the 1.9million readers of the RSPB’s quarterly magazine own a pet cat.

RSPB researcher Sarah Nelson, co-ordinator of the project, said: "We hope our research will identify affordable, humane and effective ways of reducing the impact of domestic cats on wildlife. The research will help us to offer practical and safe advice to the hundreds of people who contact the RSPB each year who are concerned about this issue."

"There is no evidence that domestic cats are causing any bird conservation problems, however it is little doubt that some cats do kill a large number of birds. Cat owners and bird lovers find this distressing, so we hope our research will find an effective and harmless solution which can be promoted as a package of measures of responsible cat ownership."

To take part in the project, the RSPB is looking for participants who own only one cat that does not currently wear a collar. The cat should also be a known hunter. Volunteers can fill in an on-line questionnaire at

http://www.rspb.org.uk/features/surveys/catsurvey/catsurvey.asp

Alternatively, details are available in writing from Sarah Nelson, Senior Research Assistant, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Beds, SG19 2DL. In your letter please state approximately how many birds and animals your cat kills each month.

Written by: Stuart Winter