Easy Prey

Cats are harming local bird populations, leaving advocates searching for solutions

Amidst the numerous plastic litter boxes and worn scratching posts, a freshly shaven cat strolls up to Mary Jo Spring, wagging its tail and meowing. The tail and its hairy face are the only signs the cat was once covered in fur.

"Who are you, goofy-looking?" she asks.

With 300 to 400 cats roaming around the Hermitage Cat Shelter at any given time, Spring, executive director of the shelter, cannot be expected to know all of them.

"The desert is a harsh place for cats to be outdoors," she says, explaining that the shelter only lets people adopt cats if they plan to keep them indoors.

And while outdoor cats are more prone to disease and the appetites of coyotes, their own predatory impulses are affecting other wildlife: Tucson's local bird population.

Cats devour Gambel's quail and their babies, and reportedly killed one of the last cactus ferruginous pygmy owls on the northwest side of town.

"Ground-nesting birds, like the Gambel's quail, are particularly vulnerable to cat predation," says Rachel McCaffrey, coordinator of the Tucson Bird Count. "When you have a lot of ground-nesting birds, and you have cats, it's not going to be a good relationship.

"This has been an ongoing problem."

McCaffrey organizes the annual bird count, during which volunteers blanket the city from April 15 to May 15. They position themselves in areas with abundant bird activity, such as parks and washes, to tally populations.

"Data shows that cats are a big ecological problem here, like they are when they've been studied everywhere else," says Kendall Kroesen, restoration program manager with the Tucson Audubon Society. "A lot of bird species in Arizona are declining for a variety of reasons," he says, one of which is cats. (See "Flying Away," Dec. 6, 2007.)

"They're a problem whether they're well-fed or not, whether they're wearing bells or not," he says. "Some people think if they put a bell on a cat, it's going to protect the stuff the cat is preying on."

Not so, he says, and that is why the Tucson Audubon's Society's board of directors recently published a statement on how to deal with this problem. The recommendations mostly focus on keeping cats indoors. If a cat is to go outside, it should be on a leash. Instead of just letting it run wild in the yard, the cat should be kept in an outdoor enclosure. Other suggestions: spaying or neutering a cat before it can reproduce, and adopting cats from a shelter.

The Audubon Society believes domestic cats can grow accustomed to being indoor-only cats, a sentiment the Hermitage Cat Shelter shares, too, along with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Feral cats are another problem altogether. These felines are the offspring of abandoned or stray cats; they grow up in the wild and without human supervision. Most of the time, groups of feral and stray cats form colonies, which can top out at 20 to 30 or more, and settle in a neighborhood or geographical area.

"(Cats) are not a natural part of our ecosystem here, and there's so many of them," says Elissa Ostergaard, urban wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

More than 100,000 feral cats existed in Pima County in 2004, according to Spring. However, that estimate was conservative at the time and may have grown since.

For Spring and the Hermitage Cat Shelter, the No. 1 solution to the feral-cat problem benefits both cats and birds: Trap-neuter-release is a method where feral cats are rounded up, spayed/neutered, tagged and released back into the wild--all in the same day. The plan from then on is to manage the colony by providing regular food and water, in the hopes that cats will munch on the donated grub instead of birds.

The shelter is working on securing grant money to conduct regular workshops and educate the general public, cat owners and neighborhoods where colonies exist. The Neuter Scooter is another part of the plan--a mobile unit that travels around Tucson targeting feral cats and serving people who cannot afford to spray and neuter their cats.

"We can be a resource; sometimes, you might have a colony of 20 cats. That's a lot of money," Spring says. "If a cat is well-fed, then they're not going to go after the birds."

This statement might not jibe with the Tucson Audubon Society or the Game and Fish Department, but all sides do agree that the time has come to tackle this problem--and that local government has got to get involved in some way.

"This has not been addressed by the city," Spring says.

While the Tucson Audubon Society is skeptical about trap-neuter-release as a solution, the group is looking to work with a mixture of players, from animal-rights advocates (such as the Hermitage Cat Shelter) to local, county and state governments.

Spring, Kroesen and Ostergaard know educational outreach programs and workshops must take place to stem the tide of declining bird populations, and the growing number of feral and stray cats.

"From an ecological way of thinking about it, in terms of the health of populations of animals, Felis catus is not going to be in danger of not surviving out there. It's been introduced everywhere in the world humans have gone, except Antarctica," Kroesen says.

But the birds in and around Tucson are not that lucky.

Pointing to the Gambel's quail distribution map on a Tucson Bird Count brochure, Ostergaard is a bit pessimistic. In her opinion, if this problem continues and nothing gets done, the tiny red dots representing the quail's population are only going to get "smaller and smaller."