They are master killing machines and wreak havoc on nature's smallest critters

This past week I was sitting on our bench, carefully observing that while the grass in the back yard desperately needed mowing, it would have to be put off yet again because the birds were flocking to our bird feeder. Hey, any excuse will do to avoid mowing that lawn, right? 

And besides, a squirrel was busy gleaning the sunflower seeds that the goldfinches tossed aside.

Suddenly a furry blur streaked out from under the porch and slammed into the squirrel. I cannot describe what occurred in the next five seconds because the two forms were fighting viciously and moving far too fast for the human eye to follow. But the end came quick, with the squirrel dashing for the nearest tree while a feral cat ran full-speed for the nearby woodlands.

I had no idea that the cat was laying in wait under the porch. But that is one of the reasons we have so many feral cats. They are absolute masters of the stealthy approach and hunt. And they are deadly more often than not.

I do not have anything against house cats as pets as long as they are kept under strict control. But I do have a deep dislike for any cat roaming free and looking for anything to kill. They are nearly perfect killing machines. And several recent studies confirm that they kill literally hundreds of millions of wild birds and many millions of small mammals every year.

Keep in mind that feral cats are an invasive species. And just like an invasive snake-head fish in an aquarium versus one living wild in a tributary of the Hudson River, cats kill to live. They kill whatever they can kill, and that means song birds and small mammals. Chipmunks, baby rabbits, young squirrels, wood rats, and dozens of other species are hunted. All species of songbirds are also potential prey. Nothing small and killable is safe from a wild cat.

How serious is this problem? Based on scientific studies, there is an estimated population of more than 90 million feral cats in America. A recent Wisconsin study concluded that 17 to 30 million songbirds were killed by cats in that state annually.

This staggering problem is exasperated this time of year. Many newly fledged young birds such as robins are often grounded for one to three days before they become fully flighted. They cry to attract the parents to feed them. Feral cats are smart, and associate the crying sounds with an easy meal. Scientific studies prove that proficient cats can kill 10 to 20 or more fledglings in one day.

I am quite aware that not all cats roaming the outdoors while uncontrolled are feral. Some are loving house pets, mostly well fed on bagged or canned food, set free each day or night by well-meaning owners to “enjoy” the outdoors.  

But what is the difference to the bird that is victim to a house pet or a feral cat? And while the house-boarded cat may not have the honed hunting skills of its wild cousin, it is still a killing machine in its own right.

I am completely astonished at states such as Massachusetts where humane organizations are actively live-trapping feral cats, then spaying or neutering them and releasing them back to the wild. That is insanity of the most inhumane kind, folks. It is pure absurdity. How could anyone hate our small wild birds and mammals so much that they would set loose a killing machine that they had in their custody?

People who own house cats should keep them indoors. If they absolutely have to be outside, then leash them like a dog. After all, isn’t that the least we can do for our smallest wild critters?

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It is astonishing how many different types of wildlife can now be viewed live on the worldwide web. Any viewer can now watch a gray squirrel nursing its young in a tree cavity, or view a nesting pair of ospreys tending their young at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, or even observe a robin feeding and brooding its young in a nest.

Barn owls are one of my favorite bird species. They can be found around the world, and there are 36 different subspecies. Just reading about their unusual abilities, like totally silent flight and being able to hear a mouse walking on hay and being able to attack successfully in total darkness, is amazing.

Their overall population in the eastern U.S. has been in slight decline for several decades.  Biologists believe that downward trend is due primarily to reductions in grassland habitat, fewer potential nest sites, and a cyclic reduction in prey species.

Several years ago, the Pennsylvania Game Commission unveiled their “web cam” broadcast live from a barn owl nest box located in rural Perry County. The nest currently contains several eggs. They are reporting web hits from around the world, thanks to the Internet. I have visited that site several times, and I find it fascinating.

Using modern technology to allow more people to learn about wildlife simply makes good sense. And it isn’t just Pennsylvania that is involved, either. Private individuals, groups, many states and the federal government all have wildlife cameras operating, offering humans with access to a computer hooked up to the web an opportunity to observe incredible situations.

Bald eagle cams are numerous. My favorites are located near Norfolk, Virginia, and in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Just keep in mind that many of those cameras are turned off after sunset.

But just about every common species I could name in five minutes seems to have a web cam focused on it somewhere. Everything from waterfowl to songbirds and beaver to bears (Alaskan grizzlies). 

There are even web cams watching elephant seals, walrus and penguins. The total list seems almost endless.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Columnist. Contact him at lisenbee@frontiernet. net.