It is no secret to birders that cats killing birds is one of the greatest bird conservation threats, and feral cats, cat colonies, neighborhood cats, outdoor pets, and strays kill thousands of birds every year. Fortunately, birders have many easy, effective techniques to discourage feral, stray, and lost cats from invading the property they've made friendly for birds. With care and thoughtfulness, it is possible to protect birds without being cruel to cats.
Problems With Feral and Stray Cats
Feral cats not only kill birds and other wildlife, but they also cause other problems when they become accustomed to visiting the same yards. Carefully cultivated flower beds can become open litter boxes. Garden sheds can become breeding grounds for litters of unwanted kittens. Trees, fences, or other structures can be territorial markers for spraying males. Aggressive cats can attack pets or fight for territory, causing neighborhood disturbances. Wandering cats may even transmit diseases, fleas, or other pests to your pets.
For many birders, however, it is the threat of feral cats killing birds and scaring birds away from feeders and birdhouses that is the biggest problem. When cats are part of the neighborhood, it is essential for birders to take steps to discourage unwanted felines from visiting the yard.
Discouraging Feral Cats
There are a number of ways that can help keep any outdoor, stray, or feral cats away from your yard:
- Remove Food: Feral cats will stay in any area where food is plentiful. Avoid feeding your own pets outdoors and cover trash scraps securely to keep from giving unwelcome cats an easy meal. Do not add any meat scraps to a compost pile. Keep grills and barbecue pits clean to avoid enticing smells.
- Close Shelter: All wild animals need a secure place to sleep and to raise their young. Board up holes in old sheds or garages, under decks or porches, or in simple shelters such as woodpiles or window wells to avoid providing this shelter to feral cats.
- Make Life Uncomfortable: Cats are well known for their love of relaxation, and making a yard uncomfortable can discourage feral visitors. Fill flower beds and areas where cats lounge with sharp pebbles, eggshell shards, or a layer of chicken wire so the ground will be uncomfortable.
- Remove Temptations: Unaltered males will be attracted to any female cats in heat. Pet owners who spay their female cats are less likely to attract feral males. Unaltered females should be kept indoors during their heat cycles.
- Repellents: Cats have very keen senses of smell and taste, and commercial repellents are available to discourage unwanted cats. Natural repellents to sprinkle on flowerbeds or gardens include moth balls, ammonia soaked rags, ground mustard, cayenne pepper, citrus peels, coffee grounds, and citrus-based sprays. Reapply repellents after heavy rains or long periods for the best effectiveness.
- Scare the Cats: Old-fashioned scare tactics can discourage cats from visiting a yard regularly. Ultrasonic sirens, motion-activated sprinklers, and motion-activated lights can all be useful. If cats are jumping on a fence in one area, a sensitive bell or can of beans or marbles that will fall when the cats jump can be effective to scare them.
- Humane Traps: Spring-loaded humane traps can be effective for catching feral cats that can then be turned over to wildlife control officials or local shelters and rescues. Place traps in areas where the cats frequent and bait them with appropriate food or appetizing scents.
- Spread the Word: A feral cat's territory extends well beyond a single yard. Talk to neighbors about the problems with feral cats and encourage them to take similar steps to discourage unwelcome visitors. Neighborhoods that work together generally have fewer problems with feral cats.
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More Tips to Keep Stray Cats Out of Your Yard
It is important to use several techniques to keep feral and stray cats out of your yard. While one tactic may be effective against one cat, using several techniques can be more effective to keep other stray and feral cats from moving in when the first cat has moved out. Other options include:
- Designing landscaping specifically to discourage cats. Sharp foliage with strong odors, thorny bushes, stinging plants, and sharp-edged mulch can all be part of a bird-friendly landscape that discourages cats.
- Supporting trap-neuter-release programs, feral sanctuaries, or other community programs that care for feral cats in humane ways. While not ideal to protect all wildlife, these programs may help reduce the feral cat population over time, as well as keep the cats in one defined territory instead of roaming more widely.
- Supporting local adoption shelters and care facilities so they can provide cats a safe, healthy home rather than permitting strays to run loose. The more support these facilities have, financially or through material donations and volunteers, the more cats they can care for.
Techniques to Avoid
No matter how problematic feral cats may be in the yard, there are certain techniques that should never be used to keep these unwanted visitors away, including:
- Poisons or any toxic contamination
- Shooting, even with non-lethal ammunition or pellet guns
- Inhumane traps, including glue traps
- Aggressive dogs
These techniques are difficult to control, and using them against feral cats can violate local laws. Furthermore, because these methods are unpredictable, using them can have negative consequences against unintentional targets such as neighbors' outdoor pets, other wildlife, or the birds themselves.
It is always wise to take steps to protect backyard birds from cats by choosing safe birdhouses and feeders, avoiding ground feeding, and providing safe cover for birds to take shelter. By protecting the birds and using different tactics to discourage any feral or stray cats, it is possible to keep feral cats out of your yard and ensure birds are safe.