Blue Ridge Naturalist: Cats and Predators
© Marlene A. Condon
One summer day when I was a young girl of about 10 or 11, I was in the back yard when our pet cat brought home a nestling Blue Jay. The dead chick was naked (without feathers) and therefore it had probably only recently hatched.
I immediately brought the cat into the house. Growing up with one or more cats at a time living with us, I knew all about their behavior. Cats were killers of all kinds of wildlife, from insects to mice to birds and anything else they could catch.
(This isn’t a statement to demonize these felines. It’s simply a statement of pure fact. Anyone who tries to say that cats are not eager hunters that are extremely proficient at this activity is either being dishonest or is ignorant of cat behavior.)
Unfortunately, any cat that has ever been allowed outside is a cat that can never be kept inside, especially when it knows there is a nest of baby birds to plunder. The cat will meow and meow until someone lets it out and that is exactly what happened at my house.
One of my siblings or parents, being annoyed by the cat’s crying, let it out again—and again and again as I kept bringing it back inside each time it brought home one nestling, then another and another until it had killed the entire brood of five chicks.
At the time, my only feeling about this was one of extreme sadness because I felt there was no reason for the baby birds to have been killed. The cat didn’t need to kill to survive and, indeed, pet cats rarely eat what they catch.
But now, as an adult with much more knowledge, I realize the tragedy was far worse than just having the lives of those five young birds cut short for no good reason. Another aspect concerns the Blue Jay pair, which often mates for life.
The male and female had invested an incredible amount of energy and time into gathering twigs and other plant materials and building their intricate nest, not to mention the huge amount of energy that goes into bringing forth another life inside each egg.
All of that effort had been for naught. In fact, this activity is so energy-and-time consuming that Blue Jays typically nest only one time per year. Thus the entire reproductive potential of that pair may have been robbed that summer.
As time has marched on, I’ve watched our “civilized” world become more and more inhospitable to wildlife. It’s quite frightening because our lives are totally dependent upon a properly functioning natural world. And that world can only be kept running smoothly by the wildlife that people, generally speaking, show so little appreciation for.
There’s nothing wrong with having an affection for cats, especially if you show that affection by keeping your kitty indoors where it won’t get hurt or killed horribly as most of the cats of my early years did.
At that time, when both cats and dogs were allowed to run free, I was horrified one day to see a dog with a lifeless cat hanging out of its mouth and I often witnessed dogs and cats run over by traffic.
Yet all these years later, there are people who continue to think that pets should be allowed to roam free. I truly find it hard to understand.
They often try to justify their belief by suggesting that cats are a part of nature and predation is natural. But this argument is fallacious.
No native predators (which cats are not) would be anywhere near as numerous in the environment as cats that are companions to an overly abundant human population. And, adding insult to injury, some people assist feral cat colonies that are outdoors 24/7 and truly taking an enormous toll upon the natural world.
Some folks think that cats should be considered helpful to gardeners, but this idea is particularly egregious. It’s based upon a lack of understanding of our natural world. In point of fact, pure and simple, gardeners who experience problems in the yard are doing things incorrectly.
When you choose to ignore the reality of the universe, you choose to have difficulties because you are choosing to ignore natural laws. Humans are not God; they have no power to successfully alter the way the world works.
Contrary to horticultural belief, “pest problems” are not a given. It should not be considered normal to encounter a variety of critters attacking your garden and interfering with your desire to grow favorite plants.
I know because I’ve successfully grown enough fruits and vegetables to eat fresh, give away to friends and neighbors, and to can and freeze without ever employing pesticides. The same is true of the ornamental plants I’ve grown, the number of species of which are too numerous for me to even estimate.
Consider the idea that cats will put an end to the activities of voles and bunnies. Yes, they certainly will have an effect because cats may very well wipe out every bunny in the area and make quite a dent in vole populations.
But a gardener who wants this outcome to occur is also a gardener who is blind to the impact his pet is having upon the natural world—and his garden.
Those voles (a type of mouse) are not just an important food source for other kinds of critters, such as hawks, owls, and foxes; they are also aerators of the soil you grow your plants in. By digging burrows they allow air and water—both of which are essential for plant roots to grow—to enter the earth.
Yes, voles do eat grasses and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants other than grasses, sedges, and rushes). In the natural world, one of their roles is to help limit plant numbers so plants do not become overcrowded.
I have voles on my property, yet they have never been problematic. Why? I also have numerous kinds of snakes that I rarely see, but they keep vole numbers so limited that the chunky creatures do not pose a serious threat to my gardening efforts. In fact, and to my dismay, I hardly ever get to see a vole.
Snakes are the prime predators of voles and everyone who’s ever told me about vole problems have been people who have killed off these sinuous reptiles. As pointed out previously, these are people denying the reality of the universe.
And the idea that you need cats to kill bunnies that are so adorable to see is ridiculous. Vegetable gardens should always be fenced. (It’s called living in agreement with nature.) Flower gardens can be made less attractive to rabbits by simply allowing so-called “weeds,” such as Common Plantain that they prefer to eat, to grow in the lawn.
A lawn should not be a monoculture for its own best health and well being anyway.
Allow White Clover to grow—which Eastern Cottontail Rabbits also prefer to eat instead of flowers—and it will collect nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, naturally fertilizing your grass. Then you don’t need to go to the expense of buying and applying petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizer, too much of which is often applied, which then runs off and harms the Chesapeake Bay.
In other words, create a nature-friendly garden and you will be not only a successful gardener, but a gardener at peace with the world and virtually every wild critter in it.