Photo by emilydickinsonridesabmx (Flickr)
March 22nd 2011: The RSPB in the UK is making careless statements about the domestic cat and its impact on birds in the UK. I don't like it. This sort of casualness about the predatory skills of the domestic cat must stop. I'll explain what and why.
RSPB stands for Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. They are a rich and long standing charity in the United Kingdom.
I have been reading an article by Daniel Bates a journalist at the Daily Mail. This is a mainstream newspaper with a large readership, the majority of which are women. The underlying tenor of his article is that the domestic cat in the UK has a huge impact on bird populations. This is a frequently addressed topic. Much greater care needs to be exercised in discussing this subject.
Mr Bates relies on the Smithsonian Institution report on a research study entitled: “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: Sources, sinks and domestic cats,”. I have written about this report and explained why I believe it to be poor and biased: The battle between bird conservationists and cat lovers. My title incidentally is not that good because it is more a battle between bias and truth!
So, firstly, the so called "facts" upon which Mr Bates wrote his article are, in my considered view, biased and plain misleading. In publishing this information more widely in a national newspaper Mr Bates is doing the cat a great disservice. This is why I am defending the cat.
In my opinion, the RSPB UK are also careless in allowing a quote from their Nick Shelton (the spokesman for the RSPB) to be published with this article. He said: ‘House cats are descended from wild cats so birds are their main source of food.’
Nick Shelton should know that the RSPB UK have made an earlier statement about the impact of cats on birds in the UK in which they say there is no definitive study that informs us that the cat is having a impact on bird populations in the UK. I think he could have made that statement to the journalist. Maybe he did but it should have been referred to as it would have put balance into the article.
There are two other aspects about Nick Shelton's statement that I don't like. Firstly, it implies that the bird is the primary prey of all wildcats. This is patently incorrect. Prey is usually a rodent.
Secondly, it is simply incorrect in that it has been estimated (and estimates I agree are dangerous) that of all the animals killed in the UK by the domestic and feral cat, 20% are birds (The Mammal Society). This was in fact quoted in the Daily Mail article! And it has been further estimated that a great number of the birds killed by cats were dying anyway. This paints a completely different picture to the one created by Mr Bates of the Daily Mail.
The domestic cat prefers to prey on ground dwelling mammals (following its wildcat ancestor) such as mice because they are easier to catch. That almost seems like common sense. We don't know, accurately, how domestic cats, including feral cats, affect wildlife.
In conclusion, it is easy for writers (including me) to put out incorrect information based on "studies" by scientists. We have to be careful because scientists are not always objective. There is a political dimension to scientific work. Studies can be used to achieve political ends.
All studies on the impact of the domestic cat preying on wildlife have at their core an estimate of some sort. Estimates are dangerous. They can become fact! Beware.