Birdkillers

by Malcolm Macdonald, June 8, 2016

You want your terrorist scares. The ISIS of the natural world resides in your backyard or, at most, the field beyond. We're talking cats. Cats kill at least one billion birds per year. Some estimates mark the avian death rate at the paws of felines at four billion birds per year, and we're talking song birds. You know, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird because they don't do nothin' but sing their hearts out all day for us.

This is not some natural born cat hater talking. Other than immediate family the first creature who cuddled up to me was a very large black as... well, his name was Midnight and he sat protectively on my tummy in my bassinet the very day I was brought home from the Redwood Coast Hospital. Midnight remained a close companion for the first five years of my ranch rearing. He stole butter right off the kitchen table, so, in hindsight, I'm sure he brought down his share of swallows and phoebes.

The estimate of one to four billion birds killed by cats annually came out three years ago from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. The numbers quoted are from the United States alone. If I may defend Midnight and cats today, every year felines also destroy somewhere between seven to twenty billion rats, mice, voles, shrews, and the like in the contiguous forty-eight states.

Back to birds; about one-third of the eight hundred or so bird species in the United States are endangered, threatened, or in serious decline. Worldwide there are approximately 10,000 bird species. 1,200 of those are in danger of extinction.

Look no further than the passenger pigeon of North America if you want to see the classic extinction case of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This basic wild pigeon species was hunted by native Americans before Europeans arrived, but the hunting intensified with the onset of “whites” and sighting improvements in guns, especially after the American Civil War. Single flocks of passenger pigeons could number in the millions, darkening a noon day sky while migrating. At the time of the American Revolution there may have been as many as five billion passenger pigeons flying at speeds up to and slightly more than sixty miles per hour over our continent.

Passenger pigeons were hunted for their meat. As food became commercialized in the nineteenth century, the passenger pigeon became a cheap and seemingly plentiful supplier of protein. This pigeon lived and flew from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic coast. Their primary breeding grounds were in the forests near the Great Lakes, but the decimation of those woodlands in the first half of the nineteenth century lowered the population and gunfire did the rest. The last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The symbiosis between birds and woodlands may appear obvious to those of us living in the redwood region of California, but the direct relationship between birds and humanity's survival may require further lesson. Let us turn to Chairman Mao and China in 1958. Part of Mao's “Great Leap Forward” was the so called Four Pests Campaign to rid China of mosquitoes, flies, rats and sparrows, especially the Eurasian tree sparrow. The sparrows were deemed unholy pests because they ate farmers grain seeds. Millions of Chinese citizens were mobilized to destroy sparrow nests, crush eggs, kill fledglings. Others banged pots and pans together, beat drums, swung brooms from rooftops, any number of methodologies to keep the sparrows in the air until they died from exhaustion.

More or less the only surviving Eurasian tree sparrows in China were those saved in foreign embassies or diplomatic missions. Farmers were able to plant their grain seeds without thieving sparrows interrupting the process, but what Mao didn't count on was the fact that sparrows kill far more insects than they eat seeds. Left unmolested by the Eurasian sparrows, insects destroyed China's rice crops in record numbers. Perhaps as many as thirty million Chinese citizens starved to death in the ensuing famine.

The relationship between the survival of birds and the survival of humankind is that simple. To learn far more about such matters may I suggest a viewing of the documentary, The Messenger. In it you will also learn how buildings, particularly glass high rises, kill nearly a billion birds a year. Not quite as deadly as cats, but a significant factor in the demise of many bird species.

(No cats on this ranch anymore, just the author's website: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

6 Responses to Birdkillers

  1. George Hollister Reply

    June 9, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    I don’t know how credible the 4 billion figure is, but does it matter? Cats can be a problem for birds. I have none, and have three kinds of swallows nesting around my house, along with phoebes, blue birds, towhees, quail, and occasionally a robin. But birds do make a mess. And it is the mess that motivates the biggest killer of house birds, people.

    Most people do no want to deal with the mess, and simply do what is required to make sure the birds know to stay away. This entails doing what cats do, without the eating part. For me the mess represents millions of dead bugs, including mosquitoes. And I can clean the mess up and use it as fertilizer.

    Then there is another big killer of birds, other birds. Let’s start with the exotic English Sparrow, and Starling. Last time I checked, both can be killed without a permit from Fish And Wildlife. So I make killing English Sparrows around my house a fun past time using my youngest son’s BB gun. Clearing Starling nests out of Blue Bird boxes, is necessary, but not so much fun.

    Then there are Sharp Shinned hawks, that can wipe out adult swallows in short order, and can do it so fast one would never notice. When adult swallows abandon there young, it is likely because some raptor has taken it’s toll on one or both adults.

    Andy Tahja told me one time, “A house with swallows is a friendly house.”

    • BB Grace Reply

      June 9, 2016 at 7:30 pm

      Thank you Mr. Hollister. I didn’t know I had a friendly house, but I do love the swallows. I believe I’ve been adopted by a raven who is good at chasing away raptors from my hens and eating ground critters.

      Swallows mean friendly house, eh? That’s all right. I like that. Thank you.

      • George Hollister Reply

        June 10, 2016 at 7:06 am

        I forgot to mention ravens. One of my favorite birds. They are also notorious nest raiders. I also forgot to mention I have Brewers Blackbirds nesting in the yard. There is a raven that will clean out their nests if he/she finds them. When one sees black birds chasing ravens, which is common, the black birds are not doing this as a passive exercise. Jays will raid nests of smaller birds as well.

        Often black birds are confused as being starlings. The two can at times be seen hanging out together. They two species need to be discerned. Black birds are good, Starlings are bad, at least in my mind.

  2. LouisBedrock Reply

    June 10, 2016 at 4:55 am

    I agree with George Hollister’s observations.

    Cats are great pets. I’ve lived with them for forty years. I usually have only one cat at a time. And I never let them outside—for the sake of birds and for the sake of cats. Cats allowed to wander outside can be attacked by dogs, other cats, or vermin. Getting rid of ear-mites is a long and traumatic process: traumatic for the cat and traumatic for its owner.

    I have two bird feeders in my yard which attract chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, cardinals, nuthatches, wrens, and have even been visited by redpolls, warblers, towhees, and rose-crested grosbeaks. Unfortunately they also attract starlings, the damned sparrows that Mr. Hollister alludes to, squirrels, red tailed hawks, and neighborhood cats.

    I kill squirrels with my Benjamin pellet gun and scare away the hawks. I carefully shoot the cats in the ass with a bb gun. There are so many damned sparrows that I try to keep them away with noises—it’s amazing that the nuthatches, chickadees, and fluffy woodpeckers ignore the noise because they seem to understand that it’s not aimed at them.

    The chickadees and nuthatches will land on the feeders as I’m hanging them up. My cat watches resentfully from the bedroom window, but she’ll just have to deal with it.

  3. Jim Armstrong Reply

    June 10, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    I think both English Sparrows and Starlings have undergone significant reductions in numbers of late.
    Is anyone seeing the huge schooling flocks (murmurations) of Starlings that were common a few years ago?
    Replacing them and exceeding them in obnoxiousness are the introduced Eurasian Collared Doves.
    I think they have driven off some native species, incuding Mourning Doves.
    Their loud and endlessly repetitive calls are as annoying as such things get.
    I hear they taste good and can be shot without limit in dove season with a hunting license.
    Hopefully they will soon be in the same category as Starlings which anybody can shoot any time.

    • LouisBedrock Reply

      June 12, 2016 at 12:23 pm

      I don’t know how doves ever became symbols of peace. They are the most obnoxious, aggressive birds to gather around my bird feeders. They attack cardinals and junkos–fellow ground feeders, and chase other species off the feeders which they soil with their excrement.

      And doves are stupid. I don’t like killing animals, but the persistence of squirrels and doves, the impossibility of scaring them off, obliges me to kill the damn things.

      In New Jersey, far away from the friendly confines of Anderson Valley, I’ve seen no sign of a reduction in the number of sparrows or starlings, unfortunately. And the damned mourning doves seem to be increasing in number.

      And yes, their calls are maddening.

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