Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives

Photo: Nature Canada

By Ted Cheskey and Aly Hyder Ali, Nature Canada

In 2013, Canadian Bird Scientist Peter Blanchard authored one of several scientific papers, published in the Journal Avian Ecology and Conservation on human-related causes of bird mortality.  The papers quantified a spectrum of human-related causes of bird mortality, using the best science available. The result was a range of numbers, some of them shocking, that provided a strong justification to take action to mitigate particular threats. The top five on the list of human-related causes of bird mortality were:

Cause of mortality

Millions of birds

  1. Cats  
  2. Windows 
  3. Power lines
  4. Vehicle collisions
  5. Agricultural pesticides
  • 105 to 348
  • 25
  • 25
  • 13.8
  • 2.7

In 2014, with the encouragement of BirdLife International and renowned Canadian authors Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, and the financial support of Environment Canada, Nature Canada established its Save Bird Lives program and hired Sarah Cooper to lead development of a campaign to address the number one human-related cause of bird mortality in Canada – predation by cats. On February 29, 2016, we launched the campaign, including a comprehensive website along with social media channels on Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, Ms. Atwood released her first volume of three graphic novels about a new superhero – Angel Catbird.

Our approach was to build collaboration between unusual partners – naturalists and cat lovers and bird lovers, and bird groups and animal welfare groups (not unlike the genesis of the Angel Catbird character himself – the result of a chemical accident involving a cat, a bird and a human). This alliance was unusual for this issue.

In our research, we learned that it is not only bad for birds and other wildlife when cats wander at large, but it is also bad for cats. Outdoor cats have shorter lifespans, have a higher chance of acquiring infectious diseases, are at risk of wildlife attacks, and transmit diseases themselves, like toxoplasmosis.  Not surprisingly, our own research suggested that cat owners are much more receptive to information related to cats than information about birds.

We hired a national polling firm to determine what percentage of cat owners allow their pets to roam at large. Our goal was to reduce that percentage by persuading those owners to change their behavior and transition their pets to non-roamers by either keeping them indoors, leash training them, building enclosed outdoor areas for them, and providing them with the stimulation they need to live healthy lives indoors.  We developed a variety of resources to help support this transition. We asked cat owners to take a pledge to keep their cats indoors to protect their cats and nearby wildlife.  We built coalitions with Humane Canada and many animal shelters, as well as Animal Rehabilitation Centers and Birds Canada, to spread the message and better understand the concerns of cat owners themselves.

A happy indoor cat. Photo: Nature Canada

Convincing cat owners to keep their cats from roaming is only a part of the solution to an extremely complex issue. There is a spectrum of outdoor cats from owned and well-cared for cats, to unowned “community cats,” to feral (unsociable) cats. Place this over the urban to rural gradient, cultural values, and the current biodiversity crisis, and it gets very messy and complicated.

All outdoor cats interact with each other. That outdoor population is growing fast due to cat’s reproductive potential. A female cat can reproduce at six months, and cats can have up to three litters a year. If you do the math, the numbers become overwhelming very quickly. Therefore, efforts to reduce cat numbers outdoors need to go beyond the owned cats, and also address the unowned ones.

Cats are the only pets allowed to wander at large in many Canadian municipalities. That said, we estimate that over 150 Canadian municipalities have enacted bylaws to prohibit cat owners from allowing their cats to roam at large. These bylaws are often generic, in that they apply to all pets, though there are some that are specific to cats. Such bylaws provide municipalities with the legal power to address the issue with owned cats, but not feral cats. Bylaws are only effective if the people know of them and if they are enforced. Unfortunately, that is not the case in many cities with bylaws.

Nevertheless, there are examples of places that got it right, Calgary often being near or at the top of that list. Before Calgary passed its no roam bylaw, it spent several years preparing its citizenry through education and the passing of a mandatory licence bylaw. Once the actual no roam bylaw came into effect, the issue was under control. Calgary cat shelters were no longer overflowing and there were fewer nuisance complaints to the City.

Nature Canada continues to promote its campaign to Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives, but now within a context of “Bird-friendly Cities.” Cat predation is one of many issues affecting bird populations in our urban areas. We will continue to encourage cat owners to keep their pets from roaming at large, and for municipalities to develop and implement cat strategies that include education, licensing, no-roam bylaws, and efforts to reduce the populations of unowned cats.

Finally, one exciting tool that we are currently developing and testing is a protocol, implemented by volunteers, that uses trail camera data to accurately estimate the number of cats within a neighbourhood or City. Data from this protocol, which we hope to make available to groups in the next year, will provide key, baseline data on the number of cats outside and a profile of where they are in your city. The information acquired from this tool can potentially help municipalities understand the populations of outdoor cats (owned and unowned) and develop strategies that help address this situation.

Author Biography

Ted Cheskey is Nature Canada’s Naturalist Director, and Aly Hyder Ali is Nature Canada’s Urban Nature Organizer.

FLAP Canada is a National Partner in Nature Canada’s Cats and Birds and Bird-Friendly Cities programs.