A Gift From China

Unfortunately China is the name of my mother’s cat, and her feline idea of a neat gift is a small mammal. In this case, about as small as they get – a pygmy shrew. Poor little thing. I’ve shown it here with a credit card as they’re the same size the world over. As you see, it’s no bigger than your thumb.

Well, it’s nature’s way I guess. I mean, we actually have this cat around in order to murder small mammals, so I can’t be mad with her when she catches a non-verminous one. Though I notice there’s an ongoing debate in the US about whether cats are a major threat to the balance of nature as they’re not a native species. Well I suppose nothing is a native species if you go back far enough, but as domestic cats have only been in North America for a few hundred years you could see how the native birds aren’t prepared for them, and though it would be surprising if there wasn’t a native predator in the same niche, I can’t actually think of one. What catches small wild birds in North America? I don’t think coyotes do. Fisher cats perhaps, and related weasel-like things. But they are only found in some climates.

I don’t know; as far as I’m aware, cats in North America have never really gone feral and therefore are only found where humans live. And with a few exceptions, the balance of species in such places is never going to resemble what it did before farming and industry. So I suspect removing cats would be like trying to make a shopping mall more like a forest by painting it green.

But perhaps I should know better than to get into an argument between cat people and bird lovers.

5 replies on “A Gift From China”

Nice rat. Where did you get that enormous credit card?

I’ve read about birds in the UK, in the couple of generations after the arrival of a motorway, steepening their angle of take-off to avoid cars. I love birds and don’t particularly like cats, but if the former need more than a couple of centuries to adjust to the presence of the latter, my sympathy is limited.

As both a cat person AND a bird lover, I can tell you this: domestic cats ARE a huge decimator of wild birds. One outdoor cat can kill hundreds of songbirds in a year. A bird’s natural predators are mainly other birds: hawks and owls, for example. They are also preyed on by snakes, and their eggs and nestlings are eaten by raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, crows, and other birds. Some birds, such as cowbirds, are ‘nest parasites’, and will replace the eggs of songbirds with those of their own.

Cats have been domesticated for, at a stretch, 10,000 years. They’ve been in North America continent for only a few hundred. They have been kept specifically to kill domestic pets, like mice and rats. But allowed outside, they do serious damage to the songbird population for absolutely no reason other their instinctual drive to hunt, not hunger. Cats should be kept inside, where it’s warm, cozy, and there is plenty of kibble and pretend animals to play with.

Another major threat to wild songbirds are introduced species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings. They have an effect similar to the grey squirrel on red squirrel populations in Europe.

Oh, I forgot to mention, despite the many natural predators of small birds in the wild, cats kill more birds than any other predator.

D’oh. I never thought of other birds.

Hundreds is a surprising figure. I’ve known cats not to catch a bird from one year to the next, if ever. Perhaps there really is a difference to the way small birds behave in North America. While the domestic cat is relatively new anywhere, birds in Europe have evolved alongside its close cousin the wildcat. Perhaps they have an innately higher alertness to the feline sneak attack.

Inkwit, you raise the fascinating issue of bird learning. It’s a puzzle; some birds are able to learn astonishing amounts, while others seem to have extremely complex behaviours hardwired. (Let’s leave aside for now the point that the ability to learn is itself a complex hardwired behaviour…) Did those birds in the UK really learn to change, or were ones who took off more steeply rather drastically selected for?

I suppose one way to tell would be how long it took for behaviour to change. By generations I’m not sure if you meant human or bird, but if they all adjusted in a couple of years I’d guess learning must have been involved. If it’s taken fifty I’d say it was predominantly culling.

(Oh, the giant card is from Anglo Irish – yet another example of their reckless profligacy.)

There are wild cats in North America, and they are native species (nobody would bring a fucking bobcat on a boat a few hundred years ago, ferchrissake). But those wild cats don’t attack songbirds much. Domestic cats are definitely capable of killing hundreds of birds a year, but experts don’t recommend that cat owners allow their cats to be indoor/outdoor pets and instead just indoor pets, because while they may be excellent at killing songbirds cats are just as vulnerable to coyotes/foxes/etc as songbirds are to them.

At the end of the day, I have to agree with inkwit on the lack of sympathy: Evolution is at its base the survival of the fittest, and if the birds can’t learn how to identify and avoid birds then they are not the fittest. Extinction is a function of nature and protecting species from other species (not human) is interfering in the balance of nature as well.

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