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.)