(reprinted from Crossing Paths newsletter, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)
Wild birds and free-ranging cats are not a good mix. As a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary manager, you most likely keep your cat confined and talk to cat-owning neighbors about doing the same. But what about homeless cats? “Feral” cats, which are usually strays that are untamed or wild, are estimated to range from 60 to 100 million throughout the United States. They are NOT wildlife. Feral cats are non-native predators that can, and have, seriously damaged wild bird and other wildlife populations.
While domestic cats are solitary animals, colonies of feral cats often form around food sources like bird feeding stations, garbage dumps, or places where people deliberately leave food for them. In fact, many colonies of feral cats are supported by well-meaning, but misinformed, advocates of what’s become known as “TNR” management: Trap, Neuter, Release. This wrong solution to a tragic problem works this way: Feral cats are trapped and taken to a clinic or veterinarian for disease testing. Those that are seriously ill or test positive for contagious diseases are usually euthanized, otherwise they are simply spayed or neutered. Then the feral cats are released back to where they were trapped and where they are supplied with food and water daily.
The theory behind TNR programs, which are funded by both private and public entities across the country, is eventual reduction of feral cat colonies. But sadly, such claims are not substantiated. Cat colonies often serve as dumping grounds for other unwanted cats. The food provided usually attracts more cats. Contrary to TNR proponent beliefs, colony cats do NOT keep other cats from joining the colony. As time goes on, some colony cats become too wary to be caught, so rarely are all spayed or neutered.
With females capable of producing up to three litters of four to six kittens each every year, it doesn’t take long to grow a feral cat colony. Well-fed cats, either feral or domestic, are “super-predators” of birds and other wildlife. The need to eat and the instinct to hunt can and do function separately. Any cat owner can attest to this fact with stories of “gift birds” laid at their feet by feline companions.
There is extensive documentation that free-roaming cats are prolific and efficient predators, even if, and especially when, they are regularly fed. Almost one-fifth of all injured wildlife brought to Washington’s wildlife rehabilitators across the state was harmed by cats.