Cats Killing Birds: Separating Fact from Myth

Alice Tapiol Breeze
By Alice Tapiol Breeze, AnimalWised Editor. Updated: August 22, 2017
Cats Killing Birds: Separating Fact from Myth

Though the world is full of cat lovers, many people are turning against these fluffy mammals due to recent information alerting about their murderous behavior - which is causing a decrease in wildlife and bird population around the world.

Demonizing cats cannot be the answer, and knowing of all the facts to make a critical judgment is fundamental in order to understand the big picture. Keep on reading this AnimalWised article in order to know everything about cats killing birds: from the causes, the consequences to the solution.

You may also be interested in: 10 Home Items that Can Kill your Cat
  1. Why do cats kill birds?
  2. Are cats responsible for the extinction of birds?
  3. How to stop cats from killing birds
  4. Final word

Why do cats kill birds?

Cats are predators by nature. Thus, they will learn to hunt in order to eat and they are taught this from a very young age. The mother presents the kittens with prey in order for the kittens to eat and, as they grow, will accompany their mother to join the hunt. However, though cats can still digest meat, they don't always eat birds. Cats can also learn to hunt even if it is not for food, as they are naturally born with this instinct. This is why a cat that is being fed enough will also feel the impulse to hunt, as chasing will help the kitten's growth development and teach them to make judgments on speed, power and distance.

Female cats have the instinct of presenting prey to their kittens, which is why many spayed females will bring their owners dead prey, as they will see the human as one of their pack due to the cat's maternal instinct.

Are cats responsible for the extinction of birds?

Domestic cats are said to kill an average of 9 birds per year. It may not seem much to you, but with the high breeding speed and the increased population of feral cats (an estimate 30 million strays only in the U.S), you can do the math.

But let's take a look at real statistics, figures and reasons behind all of this.

Have cats really extinguished 33 bird species?

Cats have been cataloged as invasive species by the International Union for Conservation, as they have allegedly contributed to the extinction of 33 species, not birds, around the world. Here is a list of the birds that have become extinct due to the introduction of cats:

  • The Chatham Bellbird (New Zealand)
  • Chatham Fernbird (New Zealand)
  • Chatham Rail (New Zealand)
  • Guadalupe Caracara (Guadalupe island)
  • Bonin Grosbeak (Ogasawara Island)
  • North Island Snipe (New Zealand)
  • Northern Flicker (Guadalupe)
  • Macquaire Parakeet
  • Choiseul Pigeon (Solomon Islands)
  • Spotted Towhee (Guadalupe)
  • Hawaiian rail (Hawaii)
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Mexico)
  • Laughing Owl (New Zealand)
  • Guadalupe Wren (Guadalupe)
  • Stephens Island Wren (Stephens Island)
  • South Island Piopo (New Zealand)
  • Bushwren (New Zealand)
  • Socorro Dove (Socorro Island)
  • Bonin Thrush (Bonin Island)

As you can see, the birds that became extinct due to cats are all from islands, where cats were not native; more specifically in islands, due to the increased frailness and uniqueness of its endemic habitat. If we take a closer look, we'll see that all of these animals became extinct during the 19th century, due to the fact that it was European settlers that introduced cats, rats and dogs into the countries where these animals lived. As many of these animals lost their ability to fly due to lack of predators (especially those native to New Zealand), these birds were the easiest prey for cats.

Current statistics

According to a study by the Smithsonian Conservatory Biology Institute over 2.4 billion birds are killed by cats in the U.S, though cats will only kill birds during their first years of life, when they are agile enough to prance on them; which is why birds count as only 10% of their usual prey. 2 out of 3 of these birds were killed by cats that are not owned (farm,strays and colony cats), whereas the rest were killed by domesticated and owned pets. Moreover, according to biologist Roger Tabor, a cat in a village will kill an average of 14 birds whereas a cat in the city will kill 2 per year. The president of the American Bird Conservancy stated that one in three birds in America is in decline due to cat predators.

In Australia, 100 animal species are currently at threat due to the increase in feral cats, which has increased significantly since the 1960s.

If we take a look at European figures, we can see that this changes, there is no significant relationship between the two, though they have found that cats do affect birds in the heathland.

Reasons behind birds' endangerment

However, if we dig deeper into the study by the Journal of Nature Communications, we'll see that only one out of three birds are killed by owned cats. The International Weekly Journal of Science writers Kevin R.Crooks and Michael E. Soulé have linked the decline of apex predators (such as coyotes in the US) that could reduce the number of feral cats in none native countries with their increase in number. But why have bigger apex predators disappeared? According to the same study it is basically due to the decline in the predators.

The RSPCB have stated that there is not direct relationship between the decline in bird species and cats. Many birds found in gardens such as the blue tit are even increasing in number, whereas other birds that are endangered such as the skylark, tree sparrow or corn bunting does never cross paths with cats and their decline is in fact due to loss of habitat in favor of farmland.

Therefore, we can conclude that feral cats are mainly a higher risk to those countries in which cats were introduced by settlers where birds had no natural predators and that the problem has been aggravated with the decline of apex predators and the increase in cat colonies. However, this does not mean we cannot help birds survive.

Cats Killing Birds: Separating Fact from Myth - Are cats responsible for the extinction of birds?

How to stop cats from killing birds

As we've seen most of the problem is due to feral cats, though this does not mean that domesticated cats don't contribute to the problem.

As we've seen above, cats do not only hunt for food but for sport too, which is why neutering domestic cats will not make much difference if they are allowed outdoors, especially if they are female due to their maternal instinct.

Though common knowledge states that putting a bell on your cat will warn birds and wildlife from your cat's presence, the truth is that, according to the Mammal Society, birds are warned of the presence of a cat due to their sighting rather than sound. Moreover, it also states that cats can easily learn to walk without the bell chiming, which is why putting a bell on a cat makes no major difference in the amount of prey it catches.

Though there are known alternatives such as the cat bib, the only 100% efficient way of making sure your cat does not hunt birds is to keep your cat indoors. If you're not convinced, remember that outdoor cats have an average lifespan of 2 to 3 years, whereas indoor cats can live up to 20 if cared for properly.

How do we solve the problem of feral cats?

There have been several initiatives and ideas to stop the growing cat colonies, as they are responsible for 2/3 of bird deaths under cats' claws. In the US, the American Bird Conservancy started the "trap, neuter, release" program, where cats were neutered and released once again. However, this campaign was not effective as it did not help reduce the amount of cats in colonies significantly and were still a public health risk as they were still living on the streets in unhealthy situations.

Despite this negative result, there are plenty of cities around the globe that prove TNR is the most effective method to deal with feral cat colonies. In fact there is talk of a prohibition to abandon cats, as this is a greater problem that perpetuates colonies.

In Australia, the feral cat problem is being handled more severely, the government pledged to kill two million in order to prevent them from terminating endemic wildlife in 2015 and there are now cat-free areas, where cats were eliminated completely. In 2017, they are currently in talks to an alternative to the termination of cats, but rather the reintroduction of the Dingo as a natural predator.

Final word

As you can see, the problem does not have a solution yet, the increase of feral cats needs to find a humane solution from each country's legislation, but each individual can do their part.

Education of cat owners is highly important in order to spay and neuter their pets and teach about the dangers of abandonment so there are less cases of the sort.

But what about the hunting nature of cats? It is important to learn how to keep your cat entertained indoors with plenty of toys so it doesn't have the urge to go outside to hunt real prey.

Cats Killing Birds: Separating Fact from Myth - Final word

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Cats Killing Birds: Separating Fact from Myth, we recommend you visit our Prevention category.

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Thanks for the interesting article. It seems also possible, even likely, that bird species going extinct in the 19th century was due to their natural habitat disruption and destruction by humans, especially on islands where, as you write, space is limited. Blaming animals for other animals' extinction seems more of a very convenient scapegoat.
Ralph Hogan
Re-introducing dingoes in Australia would be far too problematic and the feral cats would have the upper hand anyway as they tend to be very wary and remain safely out of any dog's reach - up a tree. Also, the only pure blood dingoes left are a small population on Fraser Island and they would invariably mix with packs of wild dogs - as they have all over Mainland Australia, and these dangerous ferals become extremely territorial. To wit: In the space of just one year, both my dogs - a beautiful, gentle Boxer and a pug, plus another sixteen domestic dogs belonging to my neighbours (Including 2 adult Rottweilers.) were lured into tall grass, and torn to shreds. All within just a one kilometer radius of my property. Whereas my savvy cat, who, complete with bell-collar spends all day in the bush is now a doddery 21-year-old and has remained completely unscathed. (The dingo-wild- dog killing rampage only ended when the council baited all the animals and got rid of them.) My suggestion is that someone sufficiently tek-savvy get rich by inventing a collar, perhaps an infra red detection system to be worn by all cats, which can differentiate between humans and larger non-prey animals, and small susceptible birds and mammals, and emit a loud sound to alert these animals in time - and also disorient and deter the cat. It's either that or simply legislate to de-sex all existing domestic cats in Australia and let them live out their lives, and then effect a complete ban on any more of the species being allowed into the country. Then we can all set about seriously eliminating all the ferals, knowing their ranks will not be re-filled with more strays. Australia simply cannot afford this rate of destruction to it threatened species, many of which are unlike the fauna of most countries in that they are nocturnal, relatively defenceless, and the perfect size for a cat's lunch box.
Could you address the issue of barn cats, whose 'job' is to keep the rodent population down, especially in the desert where rodents attract snakes, including rattlers. Is there any way to encourage their interest in rodents and discourage the killing of wild birds, which they do eat?
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Janis,

Thanks for raising this point, we will consider writing an article about this issue.
I had 3 cats each lived 16-18 years each. Only one ever killed anything, and believe me I would know. The female actually took birds away from the boy who did it and brought them to me to save. This is the truth. But if she failed, HE always brought me proudly all his prey. That was a big part of it. And over his 18 years of living with me, there were only 2 or 3 birds laid at my feet. Other prey was common mice (appropriate) baby bunnies (over populated) baby squirrels (same) baby snakes (same). I of course rescued those that were captured mostly as bragging rights and to play with. So even that number was tiny compared to the estimates given in these "studies". What happens on islands has nothing to do with my birds. As I said, he was the only one of the 3 that did any real hunting. My girl rescued birds when she could. My other boy was only interested and capable of capturing grasshoppers to play with, then hiding them under my rug. I find it hard to believe my cats were that incredibly special to deviate so far from the "estimates". Also, I have been around cats my whole life and never witnessed any extreme bird killing by any. Mice yes, on the farm, that was their job. Something killed my cardinal babies in my small tree once, but my cats were all inside so musta been someone else's cat or a feral. The cardinals never made a nest in that small tree ever again. They learned.
our last in/out-door cat lived 16 years - convinced had she been denied the out of doors she'd have died of depression far earlier
Lori Natale
Great article. Cats are not native to the US. Cats that are pets should be under the same laws as dogs. I am for killing feral cats. Humanely and quickly. I have a friend that rescues cats and she built a big outdoor kennel with a cat door into the garage then into the house. It also has a roof on it so cats can not get out. Cats are a real problem and should be dealt with.
Yep, and ignorant, uneducated people are also problematic and should be dealt with too. But, it's somehow humane and apparently Godlike for someone to kill God's creatures? Smh
I find these "statistics" to be ridiculous. I've been around and had cats all of my life and all of them have been indoor cats. But, even for the "neighborhood cats" I've only seen a couple of them actually ATTEMPT to catch a bird and many failed. So, no, I don't believe the numbers and neutering and spaying does actually decrease the desire to be active, so it IS EFFECTIVE. People who find ease in killing animals have something wrong with them.
John Rook
I owned a house and a pet parrot, I also fed the wild birds in my neighborhood. My neighbor came home with 4 cats that were constantly in my yard hunting my pet and the wild birds that I fed. When I went to the SPCA they told me there was no law against cats invading my yard. Cats are responsible for the extinction of many species of birds, but the laws do not change, is there a way of introducing a law that keeps cats indoors, especially for the months of May, June and July, when these cats prey on these newborn birds that are defenseless, and give there life as a cat toy. Birds can live up to 80 years, but get snuffed out in their first weeks of life. I was sick of finding dead birds in my yard when I came home from work, is there a way to stop these killers?
Cats are also responsible for his he extinction of 40 canine species due being scientifically better. Maybe you've heard of "survival of the fittest." It's nature.
There is a solution but cat lovers don’t actually want to take responsibility for their cats. They prefer their neighbors just put up with them. My mother has a dead tree in her yard for nesting birds. The neighbors cat was killing the birds. We called paws so the neighbor called the police to us. This went on for several months until the neighbor moved and left her cat to the neighborhood. I’m guessing coyotes got the cat.
Your neighbor was NOT a cat lover. People who actually ARE cat lovers, as opposed to cat "owners" DO take responsibility for their cats. NO cat lover would EVER move and just leave their poor cat homeless. That's about as far from love as you can get. Sickening.
Obviously you're a hateful person. There is ZERO reason to be mean to any animal. Ever. Period. It wasn't the cats faults. As well, the mere fact that you found it humorous, or necessary to state that coyotes got the cat shows you have zero empathy for the life of one of God's creations. You're a brown winking eye.
Combination of things.
TIP: I transitioned both out cats to a species appropriate raw diet a few years ago. I wish i knew what i know now when they were kittens! They've reduced their culling by at least 80%. Cats aren't meant to eat highly processed kibble or canned.... and don;t bring your kitten up on feathered or furry toys, thats just playing with fire!
I found this article after seeing a domestic cat slaughter a native bird right outside my office window. Last week I found the native owl, Rur, or Morepork as it is also known, dead outside my bedroom.

For the last four years or so this charming bird had called as soon as the sun set. Now it has been attacked and a hole made in its throat where it was left to bleed out and die.

I called the SPCA but all they can suggest is to spray water on the cat.

I'm in New Zealand - look in the article at how many of our unique species were killed by cats. And yet there is no constraint on letting them roam - in fact, if you harm one that comes on your property you are liable!

I had always owned cats and let them roam without thinking about it. When I moved into a house in the bush - forest - I decided to forego their company in favour of the native wildlife. That was 20 years ago.

If you own a cat and there is any population of birds and you don't think your cat kills birds, think again.
Think about the tiny limbs torn from bodies as you snuggle up with Mr Fluffy.

Too many of us are in denial. Thanks for a really informative article, I hope it sinks in to some of the more entrenched cat fanciers that they have a responsibility to control their cats.

Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Phil,

Thank you for the comment and picture. It is definitely a frustrating circumstance when this happens. Finding the balance of letting your cat go outside and protecting local wildlife is difficult to do. Hopefully awareness will at least provide some assistance.
Edward Barratt
Interesting article, opening a debate than trying to resolve it. This issue urgently needs tackling in the UK yet few seem to acknowledge it.
Administrador AnimalWised
Thanks for the input, it is an issue which definitely needs more awareness. Read Jonathan Franzen's article called ‘Emptying the Skies’ for a very human overview of difficulties one can find in bird protection.
old geezer
This at least offers more alternative arguments to the much-publicized single study in 2013, repeated endlessly, but to my awareness never thoroughly critiqued or challenged. The numbers oft quoted in U.S. cat-bird kills look suspiciously inflated, and gross extrapolations from small data sets, and localized situations, can be massaged into any number of biased agendas. For wind turbine bird kills I've seen from 33,000 to 900,000 /yr; "communication towers – estimates of bird kills are impossible to make because of the lack of data, but totals could easily be over 5 million birds/year, and possibly as many as 50 million." Uh, so despite lack of data someone is confidently then proclaiming "easily" 5 mill, up to 50 mill? The only thing "easy", it seems, is making weakly grounded assertions with a false accuracy that misleads the unscientific, but easily plied, mind. A few isolated islands no doubt suffer from introduced non-native predators, but even Hawaii may have the mongooses as much to blame, as the cats. Continental areas may see spots of cat impact, but that may only offset losses in natural predators. If it looks simple, it's probably not real science.
Rev. Velveteen
This article is written as though it's completely one or the other, your cat is either an indoor or an outdoor cat. Many people like myself have a cat that lives indoors, but sometimes when we're home and the weather is nice we let her outside. We always put a collar with a bell on her and I'm usually outside as well, or I go out and check on her every few minutes. Or sometimes we'll put her on a long lead with a harness and let her hang out. I've had zero problems with her killing birds, though she's quite adept at catching and killing mice in the house. So there is a happy medium for responsible and thoughtful pet owners. The real problems lie with feral and unowned cats, so finding solutions for those are much more important at this time.
Athena Mizelle
I STRONGLY suspect TNR would work LOTS better if PEOPLE would quit dumping unwanted cats & kittens in the woods and other places. Think about it, folks... Neutered cats can't breed, and, as has been pointed out, ferals don't live long. So, granted that cats don't randomly fall out of the sky, why are there still more feral cats??? Because people dump them when they don't want to be bothered. Y'all needn't pester the neighbor with the loved and cosseted indoor cat, or the one whose cat is allowed out sometimes... you need to be wary of the neighbor whose cat mysteriously disappeared overnight and who isn't worried about it...
LeRoy Tabb
Feral cats are also encouraged by people who put out food and water for them. They see the "poor cute little kitten" and can't find it in themselves to not help them survive. Of course, by feeding them, they are helping those feral cats reproduce. What these well-meaning folks don't see is the other side of the coin when "cute little kittens" turn into indiscriminate killers of birds and other wildlife. Ultimately, cats (domestic and feral) are an invasive species and no more a part of the natural environment than feral cows would be.
Exactly!!! Cats are not disposable items to be tossed aside when one gets bored. These people are NOT cat lovers, and I doubt that many if any of these types of people that would have uncontrolled cats will be reading this, so... I guess I resent being implicated in the blame. All the same, I'm quite sure these bird kill estimates are quite off. Re: the other kill estimates, most times that's valuable and needed, and still less than most lawn mowers in many cases. That's in town and on the farm. I've lived equally both. It just doesn't fit with my lifetime experience mostly as a cat lover, and I'm over 65, so that's quite a bit.
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Cats Killing Birds: Separating Fact from Myth