Cats ,garden birds best friend or worst enemy

As a cat owner and wildlife gardener ,I often see posts on birds sites about cats ,usually reviling them as killers and despoilers of our wild birds ,the decline of song birds ,house sparrows ,finches and virtually every english bird is blamed on them .There are calls for feral cat culls,calls to keep cats indoors at night ,make wearing collars compulsery.I would suggest that cats are often scapegoats and indeed possibly the gardeners and garden birders best friend .Cats are preditors with an inbred urge to hunt and there clearly are birds killed by cats but few compared to other sources and perhaps the very  few birds some cats kill should be seen as a sacrifice made to allow hundreds of thousands of other free use of the bird feeders aiding the survival  of species and individual birds  now dependent on garden feeders and ourselves rodent free homes because it makes no major difference to bird numbers.We have two cats and a huge number of birds visiting our feeders but never have any birds killed

green bird middle

We are merely using cats as the scapegoat for our own short falling .The main reason for the decline of British birds of all kinds is man ,,our farming practices ,our countryside management ,the motor car and as gardeners we probably kill many many more birds and indeed other wildlife such as the endangered hedgehog  by our widespread use of slug pellets,pest poisons and pesticides ,these are responsible on average for more wildlife deaths than all the cats in the country ,they kill song birds and hedgehogs ,yet are easily and cheaply bought ,to protect birds we ought to be campaigning for the withdrawal of slug pellets from UK sale .Likewise the use of antifreeze in fountains or spilling from cars kills not only cats but any wildlife that comes to your fountain or water feature to drink .Laying poison to control rats ,mice ,ants ,,all kills wildlife often horribly.

I have first hand experience of a cat cull ,in one area where we lived the local potato farmers decided one day to shoot all the farm and feral cats and kittens  (our kitten was probably collateral damage as it disappeared around that time).Within weeks they were over run with rats ,the rats caused huge damage and cost them a lot of money.

I also have over half a century experience of cat owning for as long as I can remember ,my grandparents owned cats ,my parents and now myself of all those cats only one ever caught birds which made up much less than one percent of his kills but all caught mice ,voles etc and many caught rats, moles and occasionally rabbits,the same would apply to friends and neighbours who owned cats .We have a local feral cat ,its kills are grey squirrels and pigeons and probably  rats and mice ,shrews and voles ,hes hangs around our garden a far bit and has never shown any interest in small birds .Feral cats need to hunt efficiently ,big prey is essential ,wasting time trying to climb trees to catch tiny amounts of protein is a luxury reserved for domestic cats .The major casualties of cat kills are almost certainly spring fledglings ,these kills would not be significantly  lessened by the removal of cats ,magpies ,jays and other carrion and birds of prey  and dogs will kill fledglings but other birds kill them both  in the nest and on the ground .These larger birds need to feed their chicks and small birds chicks are easy prey .

I also see not a few rare birds are killed by the motor car ,in Scotland  we regularly saw buzzards dead either in or by the road we once saw the horrendous  sight of bird of prey being tossed between cars on a busy road.I have seen more car killed birds ,usually birds of prey than I have seen birds killed by our cats .Until moving to our current house I saw plenty of hedgehogs ,all dead either in or at the side of the road crushed by cars .I also see the occasional dead badgers.

How cats help birds.

From observation I have come to the conclusion that cats overall help birds ,when our cats are in the garden ,pigeons stay away ,being ground feeders they wont risk being lunch .Likewise the grey squirrels who are also bird table and feeder thieves will usually stay away .

squirrel on feeder

,while during the day the bird feeders are still visited by all the small birds unhampered by pigeons and squirrels.

squirel nut

Our local feral cat has killed both a pigeon and a squirrel .

I quite like squirrels ,we live in an area that has never had and is never likely to have red squirrels and the greys provide some delightfully entertaining added wildlife .Grey squirrels another reviled pest dont make any significant difference to the number of birds visiting the garden or deter ground feeding birds.

bird bath top feeding space squirrel and blackbirds

but they do delay the small birds feeding time by hogging feeders.

squirrel stealinbg

which in winter can be a problem ,I do sometimes throw the cats out to give the birds some squirrel free feeding time .If your feeder isnt kept full I think that squirrels might easily empty a feeder before all the birds had a chance to feed ,we top our up regularly so its not an issue .The sole bird feeding problem from grey squirrels is their making off with apples and fat balls.

squirel fat ball

Cats also prevent vermin from stealing food and visiting the garden .At our last house both ourselves and our neighbours fed the birds ,our neighbours bird table was frequently emptied by a rat ,ours were left alone the rat  could be seen skirting the edge of our garden next to the fields but never came in ,our cats sat outside ,the birds fed the rat stayed away.

Rats not only steal bird food but will take fledglings ,they are very skilled climbers so I would imagine they could also quite easily empty a nest.More importantly when people see rats they reach for the rat poison ,rats do indeed die and are then scavenged by birds of prey and other wildlife ,rat poison kills more wildlife than cats .Though birds lives like any lives shouldnt be measured against each other ,the birds killed by rat poisons tend to be much rarer than the odd blue tit chick taken by a cat.

What do cats actually kill

Cats kill vermin if you feed birds ,food falls to the ground ,,it always does even feeders with trays  cause droppage .Ground feeding produces even more cereal or fat food on the ground.This will disappear in part or completely overnight ,what has eaten it? ,,occasionally hedgehogs will eat the fallen suet or fat from feeders but its pretty safe bet that it was rats or mice or both .If your feeding birds your almost certainly going to attract vermin ,the reason your not chasing them out of your house or seeing them in any large numbers is because your local cats will be out hunting and killing them.

The sole wildlife depletion I would concur is partly aided by cats is the small mammal population ,voles and shrews ,I was sad to see a couple of our cats bring shrews  back from time to time .Again though I would suggest more are killed by ourselves than by cats.

The evidence

People have always owned cats and in the past in many more numbers than they do at present ,I can remember when I was young it was much more common for people to have cats than not have them,farms have always had cats ,there have always been feral cats True numbers may have risen in the past few years but numbers had dropped significantly prior to that ,most people neuter their cats now ,in the past that wasnt the case and now there are more checks on their numbers and on the number out regularly ,many more cats are killed on roads than in the past ,many more cats are house cats and many more do have collars and bells and a lot more are kept in at night ,there’s also a lot more fat cats .

Yet bird numbers have declined ,I can remember in the cat infested days of my childhood house sparrow were so common as to almost be a pest,now they are a major concern ,song birds have declined in recent years ,.,but they declined most rapidly during the time there was a lull in cat numbers in the mid years of the last century ,,which coincided with our increased use of pesticides ,the building boom the changing or farming practices ,the loss of trees ,the increase in the use of slug pellets and pesticides in the garden.

Likewise the biggest declines are in areas were cats are not a significant influence ,pastureland,woodland,sea coasts .

The evidence from other endangered species

It’s telling that butterflies and bees are also almost universally declining ,cats cannot be claimed to be responsible ,none of our cats has ever caught a butterfly (in fact the only pet ever to catch one was our young spaniel ).We are responsible ,our paving over of gardens and lawns ,our use of pesticides in the garden and fertilisers,chopping down trees ,destroying hedges and our choice of showy sterile trees ,shrubs and flowers.Sterile flowers dont feed bees or butterflies and down feed birds.Blackbirds cant forage on decking or paved driveways.

Bird casualities are our fault.

The majority of cat kills are also our fault ,I used to feed birds before we got our bird hunting cat,I stoped ,the bird killing stopped .We once kept chickens ,at night we kept them safely locked away in a hen coop which we maintained carefuly ,they were never killed by foxes ,other people have had their hen coops raided and all their hens killed foxes dont do this from cruelty they would probably return to take and bury the killed hens for later food sources).However if our hens had been killed it would have been our fault ,the fox is doing what its been geneticaly programmed to do ,its killing because killing is how it survives,,we also kill to survive but the killings done for us far away so we dont tend to think about the slaughted animals we consume ,we also throw away almost as much meat as we eat ,yet we have no excuse.

If we are going to feed birds in opur garden then we need to take the trouble to keep them safe ,dont put bird tables near shrubs or trees ,dont ground feed if you have a lot of visiting cats ,dont place nest boxes where cats can get to them .We have a responsibilty to the birds we feed to keep them safe,,from  predators and from disease ,not keeping bird feeders clean can spread diseases that decimate whole populations of birds.

sick finch

Poor feeding such as giving white bread can cause tiny birds to die of hyperthermia in winter ,filled up by the nutritionally poor bread they don’t eat enough to survive the harsh winter weather ,or long-term feeding of white bread produces malnutrition such as angle wing.

Providing sunflower hearts ,fat blocks ,Nyger seed etc is a much better option.

finc and sparrow at feeder garden


Personal experience

Our cats ,only two of our cats has shown any interest in birds ,one would often climb trees after them but the birds didn’t seem to care as they had learned that she had no chance of catching them ,they would stay put on the ends of fragile little branches and fly away if she started out along them,,this usually resulted in her falling out of the tree .I see the odd local cat climbing trees after birds ,none has ever got anywhere close to catching one .Our one bird killing cat was a rescue cat ,he probably killed around half a dozen during his lifetime ,,enough for us to decide to bell him ,,the bell had no significant effect on his kill rate ,but one day I heard a horrible noise and found him dangling from a tree strangling ,luckily I managed to rescue him ,,but other cat  owners have lost cats in this manner ,we dont refuse to bell our pets from indifference but because we know that it can be a danger and also because it will often make no difference.He suddenly stopped hunting birds ,I stopped feeding them and as he got older I imagine was too difficult ,bird killing cats need to be young agile and fast ,most of our cat population is middle-aged or old ,a significant proportion is overweight or has no regular exercise or don’t go out or doesn’t have access to trees.

Some cats just dont care ,our large cat is actualy scared of the magpies

izzy magpie

Likewise we are encouraged to keep our cats in at night ,we usually let ours out as we have first a farm cat ,then two rescue cats all of which would start to tear the house apart if we tried to keep them in.We once had a cat go missing and tried very hard to keep our other cat in at night totally ineffectively ,she would sneak out or go mad trying to claw her way out .Our current cats are kittens from our last cat (we had numerous rescue cats but neither ourselves or neighbours were eligible for a rehomed cat as despite backing onto countryside we had the main road through the village at the front of the house so we allowed our cat to have one litter ,,all of which we rehomed or kept) and these kittens ,now cats have been raised to stay in at night yet one still does its utmost to escape .

Cat owners are almost all animal lovers ,they are high in the numbers of people feeding birds ,they are also high in the numbers of people who garden responsibly ,,admittedly most of these wont use slug pellets and are careful with other toxins such as antifreeze because they want to safeguard their pets ,but this also saves the lives of wildlife ,in addition our cats keep your homes for the most part free of vermin and so reduce the amount of rat poison used .Overall cats do much more harm than good ,we just see the photos of the little bird in the cat’s mouth and assume its the only killer of bird life ,yet the photo in that magazine or newspaper is probably responsible for more bird deaths ,the chopping down orf trees ,toxins released from printing ,the landfill contamination ,the animals killed by cars and lorries,,lorries are significant wildlife killers as most deaths occur in the early hours ,when there’s few regular motorists .Therefore rather than blaming cats we should ask ourselves what we have done in our gardens to help ,do we have decking ,paved gardens ,sterile shrubs ,in our sheds do we have things that can be a danger to birds and get rid of the creasot ,slug pellets, rat poison ,any poison and fertilizers and pesticides and stock up on good quality bird food and safe feeders.

bullfinch pair and siskins



About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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