The inside story on cats – and songbirds

Our feline friends turn into furry predators when let outside. It's time to keep house cats just that – inside our homes.

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    Cats that roam outdoors are public enemy No. 1 for songbirds.
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Everyone likes the idea of letting animals "run free" in their "natural habitat."

But house cats have been bred to be just that – lovable indoor companions to people. They came to America along with the early settlers. In the wild they're as much an invasive species as fire ants or cane toads (though a lot more fun to pet).

A study released earlier this month looked at gray catbirds nesting in three Washington DC suburbs. It found that, among predators, the common household cat, felis catus, is public enemy No. 1 for songbirds.

Our warm and furry friends were responsible for nearly half of the bird deaths observed. That's more than all other predators, such as hawks and snakes, put together. The study, conducted by researchers at Towson University in Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution, was published in the Journal of Ornithology.

All outdoor cats kill birds, whether they are feral strays hunting for a meal or well-fed pets let out for some fresh air. They kill birds whether they have been neutered or not. Even a declawed cat can kill birds.

Cats, the nation's most popular house pet at 60 million (a conservative estimate), kill about 500 million songbirds each year. That's perhaps 100 times as many as are killed by flying into electricity-generated wind turbines (less than 500,000), for example. It's also a lot of ruby-throated hummingbirds, chimney swifts, purple martins, northern orioles, scarlet tanagers, red-eyed vireos, and many other beautiful birds that may have survived the rigors of migration only to be killed in our backyards.

Many people hate to confine their cats inside. But the backyard isn't a great place for them, either. Feral cats, or even pet cats that just spend part of their time outdoors, generally live about half as long as those kept inside. The truth is that cats are usually quite happy doing their inside job – warming laps and adding a touch of class to any decor.

My wife and I made our stand on keeping cats inside many years ago. Talcum, our handsome powdery gray male, was run over by a car in front of our house. The young man who hit him as his car was rounding a curve in the road was brave enough and considerate enough to bring Talcum to our front door and explain what had happened.

Our next two cats, Thomas and Tessa, were also great companions and lived long and happy lives – strictly indoors.

Our lovable feline friends instinctively turn into predators when ushered outside. It's time to let Oreo, Misty, Patches, Ginger, and Tigger be real house cats – inside our homes.

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