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Doing what can be done to help song birds

WORTHINGTON -- A few weeks back I wrote about the Brown Thrasher, more commonly misnamed the Brown Thrusher. As I was telling the story to a friend of my dad's, he indicated that he used to see a lot of Brown Thrashers years ago but that he sees very few today.

This is a common fact with many species of wildlife today. Two species of wildlife that are doing great across North America are the Canada goose and the whitetail deer -- two great wildlife management success stories. When it comes to other wildlife, song birds in particular, the story is quite different.

There are two reasons for this, and everyone knows what No. 1 is. It is the loss of habitat needed for nesting and raising their young. When I was turkey hunting over by Janesville earlier this spring, one of the things I noticed the most was how many birds were using the isolated wood lots that dot the landscape in this part of the state.

The unfortunate part of this story is that more and more of these wood lots are being cleared for more row crop production. This leaves less and less space for the lowly, and not often thought of, song bird. I wondered where these birds would go when the tree lot they were using was gone for good. I don't think that Mother Nature can just tell them to go double up over there in that tree lot with the birds already there.

Loss of habitat is a big factor and one that is almost impossible to control or make any measurable headway against. Economy is economy and non-commercial tree lots produce very little income.

The second cause of song bird -- and overall small mammal losses -- is a cause we can actually do something about. I have written about this cause several times over the past eight years and, after brushing up on the subject this past week, the numbers look almost exactly the same.

There are more than 70 million free ranging and feral cats in the U.S. A feral cat is described as one born in the wild or that has been in the wild so long it no longer associates with mankind and, in many cases, looks and acts nothing like a domesticated cat. I am a die-in-the-wool-Labrador lover, but I have a friend who has a big black cat that always seems to want to be in my lap when I stop to visit. They even take pictures of me with the cat so they can tease me about it later.

I have no real love of cats, but have no trouble petting one if and when it decides it wants human attention. This is not very often for most cats. Most dogs will come when you say "here" and readily give you some love, hoping for some in return. I have never seen a cat do that. They will come when they want and don't come when they don't feel like it.

What I do have trouble with in a big way is when people think the best place for their house cat, or any cat for that matter, is running loose in the countryside eating as many song birds as they can catch. Some say cats eat few birds, but I once saw a wood pecker sitting on the ground eating ants as they emerged from the ant hill, then watched as a house cat pounced and killed it. It made it clear in my mind that cats can catch and kill birds of all kinds.

There is a Grand Canyon divide between cat lovers and the rest of the wildlife biology world. Cat organizations will say feral cats make no measurable difference or impact to the wild ecosystem, while other studies say feral cats can be given a large part of the blame in the more than 40 percent of bird species extinction globally. I did say species extinction, not population loss.

Wildlife biologists will say feral cats need to be removed from the wild, and this is accomplished by killing them. Many animal shelters will take in feral cats and destroy them almost immediately. Feral cats can no longer be re-domesticated and that makes them un-adoptable. With shelter resources already stretched, these types of cats are a big problem with no easy answers.

I think cats make great pets for people who travel a lot and need a little animal companionship. Why is it many of these same owners let the cat out at night and then let it back inside in the morning?

I have an aggressive skunk and opossum control program. On occasion I will catch a feral cat. If you saw these animals and just how horrible they look trying to survive with all of the diseases they catch, you would no longer even call them cats. They no longer look anything like a house cat. If I offered one to you, there is no way on earth you would take it.

In addition to the normal distemper, parvo and occasional rabies cases common in feral cats, they also carry many diseases that are transferable to humans. In another state, health officials found a half dozen feral cats infected with salmonella.

There is the thought process by many that wild cats need to be trapped, neutered and released -- TNR for short. The big question is, who is going to pay for it and what is the long term benefit? Cats in captivity can live 13 years. In the wild they last about eight years. If you TNR the cat at age two, it still lives many years eating song birds and other small wildlife.

The answer is to love your cat and keep it in inside. Pay the bill and have it spayed or neutered and keep the number of feral cats to a minimum. This would eliminate the need to kill them in the wild. This alone may not rebound the nation's songbird populations, but it is one of the only things that can be done, that has any chance of actually being measurably successful in accomplishing the goal of protecting and propagating the song bird populations.

I will say that dog owners need to be responsible too, and all are not. Dogs chasing deer will raise the same response in me as free ranging cats. We all have responsibilities and we need to be up to the task.

Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at