Don't Blame Killer Cats for the Decline in Birds

We're the ones destroying their habitats, and it'll take more than a bell on a collar to fix the damage.

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Dec 10 2013, 1:45pm
Image via Flickr/Herbie Robinson

This year’s RSPB report on the State of the UK’s Birds (a kind of State of the Union address for the winged community) gave a pretty grim assessment of the country’s bird populations, with the words “decrease” and “decline” scattered throughout the paper.

To give a few examples, the turtle dove has declined by 85 percent since 1995, while the willow tit has decreased by 82 percent and word warblers have more than halved. Not good news for birdwatchers—or, more pertinently, general ecosystem diversity.

These kind of dwindling bird numbers have led some—including famed TV naturalist David Attenborough—to point the finger at those unscrupulous garden wildlife terrorists: cats.

Now, it’s true that cats do kill birds, and it's a good idea to buy your cat a collar with a bell on it, as Attenborough suggests, to warn unwitting wildlife there’s a predator on the loose. But let’s not forget another major cause of falling wildlife numbers: humans. The birds highlighted by the study aren’t rare species, but common countryside birds—or at least they were, before they completely disappeared from some parts of the UK—and their recent decline isn't because the country’s been overrun by kittens (though for the record, I’m not completely against that idea). Indeed, the RSPB says there's no scientific evidence that cats are affecting bird populations.

Rather, a major reason for the figures is habitat loss. Colette Hall, of the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust, explained that the decrease in species like snipe and lapwing was due to us humans taking over their wetland habitat for our own purposes. “A main cause seems to be loss of habitat due to wetlands being drained for farming or development,” she said, commenting on the report. “We need to protect and restore these habitats in order for species like these – and all wetland wildlife – to survive and prosper.”

A lapwing, just trying to get by in its dwindling wetland habitat. Image via Flickr/Gidzy

Draining wet pastures where certain birds live restricts their breeding range, and can result in the kind of nosediving populations mentioned above. It could also account for some of the geographical trends observed by the researchers: the South of the country in particular is losing out on some species. 

The report also points out that climate change could have an impact on bird populations, especially in regard to “overwinter survival” as temperatures drop in the winter months. More research is needed in that area, but it’s another factor that we’re undoubtedly contributing to.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the damage humans are doing to bird populations (and other species), the solution isn’t as simple as sticking a bell round our necks. We need to actually put the effort and resources into implementing specialised conservation efforts. Just as the latest Red List report showed that conservation works when we actually try, the RSPB survey had good news for birds targeted by species recovery efforts. The relatively rare red kite, for instance, saw its population increase by 676 percent over the past 15 years. 

But Phil Grice of Natural England pointed out that preserving more common birds is in some ways more difficult. “Whilst we have made great progress with reversing the declines in many of our rarer bird species, thanks to site management and species recovery work, improving the fortunes of our 'wider countryside' birds requires us to think beyond good management of our special sites,” he said, and explained his organisation was trying to work with farmers and land managers on the issue.

So until you’ve done your bit to curb habitat destruction and combat climate change, leave poor killer kitty alone.

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