Copyright 2011, by Mark Edward Vande Pol All rights reserved
We have all heard it before: “Housecats are terribly destructive to birds.” Well, I “knew” it too. Even my mom told me as much as a child in the early sixties. Yet this is a story about how our outdoor house cat increased our population of quail. It turns out that even then there was sound scientific reasoning as to why it worked, but before I start, you should know that for over a decade, I was opposed to having a housecat on our property precisely for the reason that it might be harmful to bird population levels.
For over twenty years, our family has been engaged in restoring native plant habitat on our 14-acre property here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is a very detailed kind of work, involving weeding full time for a period of five to seven months each year. As a result, I know every inch of this property with a level of intimacy few ever approach. Since we started, the number of observable plant species has grown from about sixty to over 360.
A great many of these new arrivals were clearly not from dormant seed in the soil, but were new introductions. I asked Dr. Grey Hayes, Coastal Training Program Manager at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and a president of the California Native Plant Society, whether he thought this “flow” of seed might be due to birds. He suggested that I obtain A. Starker Leopold’s book, The California Quail.
I bought the book and it sat on the shelf for a year or two. During that time, rats and mice had been eating the wiring on our vehicles and just making a general mess of things around the outside of the house. Then there were the gophers and ground squirrels tearing up the hillsides. I speculated that the reason we saw more evidence of them near the house than farther afield was that the local bobcats were unwilling to get that close to a home.
Inasmuch as I “knew” that housecats were supposedly “terribly destructive” to birds, I reluctantly broke down and agreed to obtain an outdoor house cat and observe what happened. My wife is a cat-sap from way back, so we already had an indoor kitty. I didn’t want another cat. She and I agreed: If the outdoor cat turned out to be destructive to bird life, or if it didn’t kill enough rodents, we would get rid of it.
We obtained a large, grey tom from a feral cat rescue group by the name of Project Purr, in Santa Cruz, CA. This was Cyber. Cyber was 17 pounds of barn cat with a huge head and a bad reputation for beating up on other animals where he’d been. After his neutering, three-week introduction, and subsequent release, I’d see him around upon occasion, pouncing on… lizards (???) with evident glee. I didn’t want him eating lizards, because they eat (and inoculate) ticks and I was still worried about birds. So far, he wasn’t after gophers, so I wasn’t thrilled.
He was a real tom: a little rough around the edges, but hard not to like
He really was quite personable. He’d saunter by the house for the obligatory dinner to which he clearly felt entitled. Then he’d climb in your lap and jell on a few scritches, that is, until you tried to put him down and there’d be twenty pointy hooks in your pants (just to let you know what he could do if you discomfited him witlessly). But once sated and appropriately appreciated, he’d saunter off and go back to doing what he loved to do: killing things.
This cat was a killing machine. He’d bring everything home, eat until he puked, then he’d go kill some more. The ground squirrels were quickly silenced, the mice and wood rats disappeared, and then he went on to rabbits. This cat was so good at killing that it was a bit scary. So I finally decided to crack Starker Leopold’s book and see what it had to say on the topic lest he got a taste for birds. I must say that in the prior month or so I’d only seen feathers once.
It was a scrub jay. Scrub jays are egg-eaters… he can have those.
The California Quail is a compilation of both Mr. Leopold’s personal experience and technical papers of various sorts dedicated to the purpose of habitat management. It is an excellent scientific book, beautifully illustrated with line drawings and thoroughly footnoted and referenced. To my surprise, it said very little about house cats. Yet I did find two discussions in particular that aroused my curiosity.
The first was a chart referenced to Glading in 1938. He had observed and recorded the fate of 96 quail nests in the San Joaquin Experimental Range the prior year. Of those 96, 17 successfully bred chicks. Of the remaining 89 that failed, he listed and numbered the respective causes in a chart. Sixteen had been abandoned (twelve before laying and four after). Six failed for reasons unknown. Housecats got four and bobcats two. No other cause but one, resulted in more than four incidents of nest failure. That “one” was ground squirrels. Ground squirrels had raided TWENTY-NINE quail nests, more than seven times the damage of any other cause of quail nest failure.
Amazing; I had had no idea ground squirrels were nest predators.
The second notable study was in a chapter on quail mortality in a lengthy paragraph on bobcats. It quoted Grinell in 1918 stating, “Wildcats are about the worst enemies of these birds.” However, in FIVE subsequent studies, scientists had opened over 500 bobcat stomachs and failed to replicate that observation, with birds of all kinds representing no more than five percent of the total food intake, and usually less. Leopold’s conclusions were two:
Wow. I had no idea. Get a cat and get more quail?
Before we first got Cyber, we didn’t have ANY quail and I’d often wondered why. We have beautiful quail habitat, with mounds of native blackberries down the slope below the house to provide food and cover adjacent to open meadows of native forbs producing gobs of seed. I love quail. They’re cute. But oh how I don’t want them spreading weeds!!! Even so, upon reading Leopold’s book, I proposed to note if getting a housecat actually increased the number of quail.
Three years later, we had at least thirty quail in but two acres, vastly more than Leopold’s book suggested was even possible. It was stunning. In fact, that the cat harasses the birds may mean they find places to nest and roost that are safer from other predators, particularly hawks.
Get a cat and get more quail. Who knew?
So, to those who would warn about cats because they eat a few birds, I have this to say: I have spent twenty years of outrageously hard work on precisely these issues without compensation, thirteen of which included literature research writing two books focusing upon environmental policy. That research obviously included Native American land management. I spend five-to-seven months per year weeding our property full time, with the additional hard labor of forest thinning, propagation, and other land management over the rest of the year. That combination of research and hands-on experience has led me to an inescapable conclusion: The very existence of “Nature” or “Wild Lands” is (but for the most hostile and inaccessible locations) an urban myth. Every bit of this continent was under active management by people who exerted a profound effect on the composition of the landscape. Since that time, our urban culture has exerted an equally profound effect, inducing a growing ecological disaster pursuant to a policy of mandated neglect. Meadows are choking with ever more weeds. The brush is being taken over by exotics. The forests are so packed with fuel that suitable habitat for forbs and wildlife is long gone. Do something about the fuel and without a decade of grueling work, exotic weeds just take over. If the weeds take over, we have changed irrevocably the foundation of the food web, both insect and avian. In this insane obsession with Nature we have been watching any potential for the landscape ever expressing again its former glory slip through our fingers because we have lost our sense of responsibility to manage the condition of our surroundings.
It’s easy: just sit on your butt, call it “Natural” and there’s nothing to do. The problem is it doesn’t work, either for wildlife or for people.
WE are responsible for maintaining a level of disturbance and management that maintain suitable habitat for all the plants and creatures out there. It doesn’t come free and it’s definitely NOT easy. It is, however, an immensely satisfying learning process. So if what you want is birds, make certain there is an adequate supply of plants producing seed of the types they eat. Make sure they have water to drink, nesting materials, adequate shelter for nesting, and perches for roosting. THEN manage predation.
But without the latter, it just won’t work. It’s just how things are.
I am NOT saying that this plan will work everywhere. Every property is unique and these systems are complex. Yet we do learn more from perturbation, experiment, and observation than from preservation, theorizing, and stressing. So I hope this little piece has perhaps aroused your curiosity and hopefully prodded your sense of responsibility.
I wrote this article because we lost Cyber recently. He was getting older, and a little portly. I was a bit worried that he wouldn’t be as capable of flight were he confronted with a mountain lion or coyote. So, in a sense, I owed this to him because his loss, in part, represents my failure to manage predation. I also wanted to help the people who work so hard to find feral cats, get them out of a bad situation, and then find them a job to do. Cyber wasn’t hard to like, an affectionate boy with an opinion. I’ll miss him.
So, if what you want is birds, don’t blame the kitty. Look in a mirror, put on your gloves, and get to work. It’s just how things are.
Mark Edward Vande Pol is a medical device engineer, author, and hobbyist in habitat restoration science. His book: Natural Process - That Environmental Laws May Serve the Laws of Nature details the adverse environmental impact of political and legal ecosystem management. He proposes an alternative, free-market environmental management system capable of evolving an objective pricing system for ecosystem resources.