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Keeping Your Backyard Bird Safe

By: Alex Lieber

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Imagine you're sitting in your backyard, sipping coffee and listening to the rustling breeze. A songbird perched at your bird feeder adds just the right element to complete a perfectly peaceful scene.

But danger could be lying in wait for your feathered visitor in the form of a cat – yours, one belonging to a neighbor or a stray. The mere threat can give your backyard a bad reputation among the population, and your bird feeder could sit alone and unused.

More than 50 million Americans have bird feeders, baths or houses for birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birds bring color, song and liveliness to any backyard setting. In return, birds have a rest area to feed, wash and perch.

This bucolic statistic has a darker side: Domestic outdoor cats are estimated to kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. A study, conducted across North America, noted that cats especially prey upon dark-eyed juncos, pine siskin, the northern cardinal and the American goldfinch.

To protect vulnerable bird populations, the American Bird Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving wild birds and their habitats, has launched a campaign called "Cats Indoors!" The campaign aims to educate the public to the threat outdoor cats pose to birds at feeders and baths, as well as to other small mammals, reptiles and even themselves.

The campaign doesn't lay the blame of predations at the paws of cats, but instead picks up on the theme many veterinarians and cat owners have been saying: A cat is safer, healthier and happier indoors. It also tries to dispel several mistaken beliefs, such as:

Common Myths

  • Well-fed cats are not a danger to wildlife. In actuality, the hunting instinct is independent of the urge to eat. One study showed that cats, while eating preferred food, stopped when shown a small rat. Each cat killed the rat, then returned to eating their preferred food.

  • A bell around a cat's collar is an effective way to warn birds. Birds and other small animals do not always associate the bell sound with danger. The bell also provides no protection to nestlings and fledglings. In addition, some cats learn how to stalk silently, even with a bell attached to the collar.

  • Stopping a cat attack allows the bird to escape and live. Even if a bird escapes, it will very likely die from its injuries because cats carry many types of bacteria and viruses. Even with prompt treatment, only 20 percent of birds survive an attack.

  • Stray cat colonies are not dangerous to wildlife. This myth is associated with the first point, that well-fed cats are not dangerous. Even if fed regularly, stray cats will hunt birds and other small animals. In fact, parks that once had thriving songbird populations have reported a sharp drop with the arrival of a cat colony.

    Possible Solutions for Protecting Birds

    Although the real solution lies in reducing the numbers of outdoor cats, bird lovers can take steps to thwart an attack in their backyard, notes Susan Wells, executive director of the National Bird-Feeders Society.

  • The first line of defense is to buy the right feeder, one that is enclosed in a basket or cage. The feeder (or bath, for that matter) should have an opening just big enough for the bird to enter.

  • Place the feeder or bath near, but not in, bushes and shrubs. Once a bird senses the approach of a cat, he will sound the alarm and he and his friends can escape into the thicket. Some have suggested that evergreen trees work well because they provide cover all year long.

  • Never place a feeder or bath on the ground or too close to a tree, which provides cats with a jump-off point. It's best to keep a feeder about 4 yards from any tree or object that can be used by a cat.

    Even if a cat can't get to a feeder, he may hang around in the hope of catching a bird, Wells said. Their presence can scare away birds. Wells said that scattering citrus peels around the yard will keep cats away. "Members say that lemon or orange peels seem to work best," she said.

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