Guide to saving birds while keeping cats happy

Some say there’s nothing to do in Ohio. I couldn’t disagree more. Did you know we live in a world-renowned birding paradise, home to 450 bird species?

Just take OH-2 West to Magee Marsh, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Maumee Bay State Park – really any park, shore or island – and you’ll find yourself in the Warbler Capital of the World. Bring binoculars for the Biggest Week in American Birding, a birding festival held in Oak Harbor in mid-May.

In these parks, you can find rare warblers as well as bald eagles, sandhill cranes and common terns in active restoration programs. Even our backyard bird feeders are chock full of gorgeous native birds. In Westlake, I see red-bellied, downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers from my window daily. We Ohioans are lucky, to say the least.

However, the biggest threat to wild birds, which kills 1.3-4 billion birds each year in the U.S. alone, is also right in our backyard (and on our kitchen countertops knocking over delicate ceramics for sport).

Domestic outdoor and feral cats have caused one-third of U.S. native bird species to become endangered. They have been linked to 63 bird extinctions worldwide and kill 6.2-22.3 billion U.S. mammals annually.

Beyond killing birds, domestic cats, a non-native species, also harm our ecosystem – for example, with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Cats are the only definitive hosts of the parasite.

Through cat poop, T. gondii infiltrates our water and food chain, causing a potentially serious zoonotic infection called toxoplasmosis; pregnant women and those immunocompromised are particularly susceptible. Additionally, outbreaks occur in both livestock and wildlife, including and not limited to birds, marine mammals, bears and deer.

The prevalence of T. gondii in American domestic cats is around 16-80%, varying depending on the region. Keeping cats indoors greatly reduces the risk for humans and animals alike.

Lastly, outdoor cats interact with other free-roaming or feral cats and have increased contact with feline leukemia virus, the most common cause of cancer in cats; distemper, a deadly and highly contagious viral infection; and potentially fatal parasites like heartworm. On top of that, they can be poisoned through ingestion of rodents killed by rodenticides and contact with pesticides, herbicides and slug bait.

The outdoors are dangerous for cats, and the sheer number of birds that die to cats is downright disheartening. However, we can protect both animals by keeping our cats indoors. Cats can be defiant, I know, but through my foster parent experience, I have transitioned outdoor cats to indoors. They adjust.

To be clear: I love cats, and I support their supervised time outside. The problem occurs when our animals are let loose outdoors. Luckily, there are many safe ways we can let our cats romp around outside.

First, we can build or buy outdoor cat enclosures. Some people build terraces, “catios” or catwalks in the backyard; others buy playpens. There are plenty of free plans and how-to-make-a-cat-enclosure videos online. My foster cats had a blast playing in the wood and chicken wire enclosure I made for them.

Second, we can walk our cats on leashes with harnesses from any pet store. Third, providing indoor enrichment activities (bird videos, playtime, cat scratches, chews, cat plants and more) can provide cats the same stimulation indoors that they receive outdoors. 

There are an estimated 50-100 million homeless cats in the U.S. Some are abandoned. I understand why some people have to surrender their pets. Rather than releasing cats to the wild, the humane way to surrender is through animal rescues. Typically, surrendering fees are small: at the Berea Animal Rescue, it’s $25. As a rescue volunteer, I guarantee that we put our heart into providing excellent care for animals and finding them a new home.

Our cats are our pets, our friends and our family. Our native birds are our pride, our community and the backbone of biodiversity. I consider it our highest honor to protect them.

Migratory season was this fall, but fledgling season is coming up this spring and summer. Ground-bound, defenseless and completely dependent on their parents, “fledglings” are birds at their most vulnerable. Easily, they become a feathered toy for outdoor cats. Only 1 in 5 birds will survive to their first birthday.

So please, for the love and mercy of birds, cats and all other marvels of the world, let’s keep our cats indoors.

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Volume 16, Issue 3, Posted 9:20 AM, 03.05.2024