The National Geographic article originally published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine with the headline, “To save birds, should be kill off cats?” is poor for a couple of reasons even though it does try and strike a balance.
I object, right away, to the phrase “kill off”. This phrase, in the way that it is written, means to totally eradicate, to extinguish completely cats from the planet. It is therefore a ludicrous headline. Perhaps it is designed to catch the eye but it simply frustrates and annoys. It should not even be suggested because it is an inhumane non-starter. The title should have been, “To save birds, should we kill or neuter cats?”.
The author of the online National Geographic version of the article, Noah Strycker, refers to a Smithsonian Institution and US Fish and Wildlife Service research study which combines data from dozens of previous studies. The intention was to estimate the number of birds killed annually by cats in the United States. They came up with some startling figures which are constantly banded around in defence of the argument that people should perhaps kill feral cats in their millions.
The study came up with the figure that one to four billion (note: this is not ‘millions’) birds a year are killed in the “lower 48 states” together with up to 22.3 billion small mammals and a further high number of reptiles and amphibians also in hundreds of millions.
The numbers are staggering but it should be stressed that (1) these are estimates which the author does not mention and (2) it was written by scientists who are sympathetic to bird life e.g. ornithologists or influenced by ornithologists (bird lovers). They are extrapolations of relatively small studies to try and work out a figure which is nationwide. This team wanted to produce an all-encompassing total of animals preyed upon by domestic and feral cats and they came up with these huge figures. But they aren’t accurate in my opinion. They may be highly inaccurate and I speculate that they are biased towards large numbers to encourage local authorities to alter their policies regarding feral cats away from TNR to trap and kill.
One city, Washington DC, is doing something about this inbuilt inaccuracy of current cat predation studies. They decided, wisely, to actually count with some precision and in some detail the number of domestic, feral and stray cats including those in shelters in the city. The intention is to provide people with a reliable figure which they can count on and therefore they can work out predation levels of these cats upon native species. It will take about three years.
This Washington DC survey is a first of its kind. It bypasses the problems with extrapolating from small existing study assessments to large-scale figures. It simply isn’t possible to do that accurately as mentioned.
Returning to the article in the National Geographic, it needs to be criticised for what it is; an unfair, hidden criticism of the domestic cat. Admittedly the author does not follow through from the title to suggest that cats need to be killed off. In fact he doesn’t know the answer which isn’t much good either. This article was published in their magazine as well. I’m sorry but this is poor quality and it needs to be said.