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birds enjoying birdbath (77261 bytes)    

Birds vs. Cats: Evening the Odds

By Terry Deem-Reilly, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver

Many gardeners design their gardens specifically as wildlife habitats, usually for birds. They place trees and shrubs in optimal locations to attract, shelter, and feed birds; situate birdbaths to be accessible; and spend hundreds of dollars every year for the most nutritious birdseed they can find. All too often, though, habitat gardeners find to their horror that these efforts have provided a virtual smorgasbord for the neighborhood cats, and the search for solutions begins.

When approaching this problem, forget these "facts" about cats: a bell on a cat will warn birds; well-fed cats won't hunt; andcat sunning in garden (24818 bytes) stopping an attack will save the bird. Prey won't associate the sound of a bell with danger, and cats hunt from instinct as well as necessity. Moreover, only about 20 percent of birds rescued from cats will survive, as cats are practiced killers and carry many bacteria and viruses.

The easiest solution to bird-killing cats is to keep the cats indoors - that is, if the offenders belong to the gardener. Neighbors may not be eager to end Fluffy's free-ranging habits; feral cats usually cannot be caught in the act (or caught at all, except with a good spring-action trap!) However, if predatory cats cannot be confined, they can usually be controlled.

Remember the adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Dogs are the cat's natural enemy and cats will avoid a yard where a dog is in residence. Fence the yard and let Fido run free (and bark) - but  dogs also hunt, so keep them from areas where birds will feed and perch.

A squirt gun aimed at an invader is effective, if the cat is caught in the act of stalking. (Cats must associate the punishment withmotion activated water scarecrow (34107 bytes) the crime for this technique to work.) A device that squirts water when activated by a motion detector is even better because it's not necessary to catch the cat yourself; many garden supply catalogs feature these.

Citrus peels or orange oil can be sprinkled under or adjacent to the feeders or bath. Cats dislike the smell of lemons and oranges. Chicken wire can be laid on the ground, as cats don't like to walk over it. Low fencing around the bath/feeder area will slow an attacking cat, although maintaining the lawn around the fence can be difficult.

cage1.jpg (25124 bytes)Select a feeder that is enclosed in a cage so that birds can enter and feed in safety. Install baffles below pole-mounted feeders, or hang feeders from tree limbs (get feeders with perches that shut under the weight of a squirrel, or you will replace one problem with another).

Plant shrubs near enough to the bath or feeder area for birds to escape quickly if a cat approaches, but not so near that a cat can stalk and leap before the birds sense her presence. Ten to 15 feet is good. (One Maine Coon of this writer's acquaintance can clear a seven-foot fence in one bound and is an exemplary predator.) 

Birds breed and raise their nestlings in the spring and early summer, so they are more active, more distracted, and therefore babybird just having left the nest (27321 bytes)easier targets for cats. Limiting kitty's times to roam during this season may help. Also, cat-owning neighbors may be more amenable to confining their pets if they understand  that it's only for a few weeks.

If feral cats are the problem, the gardener can trap the cats or ask local animal control to do so. Traps are often available from humane societies or cat welfare groups. Trapped feral cats can be surrendered to a shelter or pound, but if you trap someone's pet, please return her to her owner, rather than sending her to a shelter to be killed.

Discouraging any animal from following its instincts will require time and patience - keep using the above techniques until you see results. And remember, predators too have their place in nature.

Photos of motion detector, birdfeeder courtesy of Brookstone 

Other photos: Judy Sedbrook