How to protect birds from cats

In Canada, cats kill 200 million birds a year

He never once caught a mouse. Never chased a chipmunk. Not once did he kill a songbird.

Our indoor cat, Clawed Monet, simply watched their lives from the comfort of an open window when the weather was good, and from behind the glass when the cold winds of winter sent most of our forest friends under ground.

Outdoor cats have decimated an already declining songbird population that has seen a 75 per cent decline since the late 1960s. A study by researchers at two Canadian universities found neonicotinoids – a family of insecticides – to be a leading cause of this decline, but be assured that outdoor cats are a major contributor to this decline as well.

It wasn’t that Monet couldn’t handle himself out in the real world. He came fully equipped with four sets of very sharp claws and a couple of feline fangs that would scare most canines, domesticated or wild.

But Clawed Monet was an indoor cat – one of millions of cats that stay indoors, safe from cars, trucks and your neighbour’s rodent poisons. Fleas, ticks, mites, intestinal worms are rarely a problem for indoor cats. Neighbourhood cats, coyotes and, depending where you live, larger prey animals like alligators that see cats as nothing more than a morning meal, are not their problem.

Monet loved to sit on the table or the back of the pink couch to watch the world pass by outside the window in the Woodland Garden.

Monet loved to sit on the table or the back of the pink couch to watch the world pass by outside the window in the Woodland Garden.

Estimated 60 million feral cats in the United States

The problem is that Clawed Monet represents a small fraction of the total number of cats. Most of the 95.6 million cats in the United States alone are left on their own day and night to wreak havoc on a natural world not prepared to deal with an introduced predator and certainly not one as efficient as a house cat, or worse, a feral cat. The American Humane society estimates there are 60 million feral and homeless stray cats living in the U.S. alone.

These cats carry and spread diseases such as feline leukemia, feline AIDS, feline infectious peritonitis, feline distemper and upper respiratory infections.

For more suggestions and some of my favourite garden things, be sure to check out my Favourite Things post.

But more importantly they are a major contributor to the decline of our backyard birds.

In Canada alone, a 2013 study by Environment Canada scientists in the Avian Conservation and Ecology journal, states cats are the number one killer of birds in Canada. The report adds that bird deaths by window collision is a distant second claiming 25 million birds per year.

In Canada alone, the study estimated that cats are responsible for 200 million bird deaths each year. Imagine the number of deaths when you include cats from the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

It’s a tragedy that does not have to exist. And it’s growing, as more and more cats are introduced to our world either as pets or, even worse, escaped pets that become feral.

How to keep birds safe in your woodland garden

Steps can be taken to help protect birds in your garden. We find that having a dog is certainly a good way to keep cats our. Our dog, Holly has always lived with a cat and she has never harmed a single animal that comes into our yard, but if a stray cat wanders into the yard, Holly’s frantic barking will clear any cat that knows what’s good for it out of the yeard.

But there are many other simpler solutions that can go a long way to keep bird safe.

• Keep your bird feeders and bird baths a safe distance from cover that can conceal a cat. Ideally, feeders should be 10-12 feet away from cover that could leave the birds susceptible to an attack

• Thorny bushes will help discourage cats from feeders and provides perfect safe zones for birds. They could also offer fruit or nesting habitat for backyard birds as well.

• Fencing can help to keep feral cats out of your yard or, at least, help keep them back from feeders and birdbaths.

• Ensure your birdhouses are cat-proofed. Not only should they be at least eight to 10 feet off the ground, try not to have perches large enough for a cat to use to help them gain access to the inside of the nesting box. In addition, extenders can be added to the nesting box access holes to make it difficult for cats or raccoons to reach into the boxes.

• Ensure that feeder poles are metal and have squirrel baffles to stop cats from getting up on feeders.

Birds are not the only wildlife killed by cats

It’s not just birds that are victims of outdoor cats. Millions of chipmunks, red squirrels, rabbits (both young and tiny babies) are brutally killed each year, their bodies often just left behind because many cats simply kill their victims out of instinct rather than a source of food.

The mass killing of small predators leaves less for natural predators like fox, coyotes, owls and raptors that depend on an abundance of these food sources for their own survival and that of their young.

According to the 2013 study, Canada’s wild bird population are estimated to have declined 12 per cent in the last 40 years, with some populations decreasing by over 95 per cent.

Ted Cheskey, a conservationist with Nature Canada, reported that “cats have contributed directly to the extinction of 34 species of birds” globally.

The report, based out of British Columbia, focused on the particular threat to that province’s island-based bird populations explaining that a new predator, like a cat, can totally devastate a colony that previously had few predators.

In a comprehensive article on the subject, the CBC quoted Cheskey stating that: “The cats, they’re indiscriminate on who they choose to kill. It can be a common bird, but it can be a bird that’s perilously close to being wiped out as well. It’s a big problem.”

The American Humane Society explain that a “cat’s prey drive is so strong that even well-fed cats may naturally enjoy hunting birds or other small animals. Although the impact made by one cat might not seem like a big deal, it is important to think about the total impact of all the cats who are allowed outside. Loose cats are estimated to kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, yet birds are believed to be only 20 per cent of the wildlife stray cats kill. Birds are especially at risk around homes with feeders and birdbaths.”

Saying goodbye is never easy

This week I stood beside Monet comforting him as the veterinarian administered the two needles that quietly and peacefully took his life. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, my wife had to say her goodbyes in the parking lot outside the cat clinic. In a world where thousands of people are dying from the pandemic every day, Monet’s passing seemed small in comparison.

But to our family and his best canine friend, Holly, it marked a sad day.

There is comfort that he was allowed to live a full life, safe from the dangers of the cruel world outside his home. There was comfort that he left the world without ever playing a role in the mass destruction of the woodland gardens he loved so much to watch over – the world he saw from his favourite perch on the back of the pink couch that suited his gentle disposition and his kind heart.

Clawed Monet was a Very Good Boy.

• This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

How to attract nuthatches to your woodland garden


Tips for using water to attract birds and other wildlife