Sadly, it wasn’t terribly difficult to see where this story would lead. According to a May 4 post on Houston Audubon’s Facebook page, 395 birds were killed when they collided with the American National Building (Galveston’s tallest) in a storm the night before. “This is the largest event like this I have ever been a part of in over 10 years,” explained Josh Henderson, the Galveston Police supervisor who had the grim job of tallying the fatalities, in a Houston Chronicle story the next day.
And yet, it was only a matter of time (and not much of it) before the conversation shifted to… you guessed it: cats.
Sure enough, shortly after the organization’s initial post, Houston Audubon directed followers to a chart from the 2014 State of the Birds report illustrating “additional drivers of bird declines,” with cats apparently dwarfing all other mortality sources combined. I say apparently because the data used to create the chart comes from the discredited 2013 paper, “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States.”
The following week, when The Washington Post picked up the story, “an Audubon Society representative” described building collisions as a “tragic and avoidable fate for too many birds that comes second only to death by cat.”
Not that this is anything new, of course. Just a month earlier, Doug Smith, “outdoors” columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, had taken a similar tack in response to bird deaths caused by the recently completed U.S. Bank Stadium, writing: “it’s cats—yes, common felines—that pose a much bigger threat.” And wind energy advocates eager to divert attention from the impacts of wind turbines have been playing the “outdoor cat card” for years now.
The irony here is difficult to miss: it’s the organizations whose mission is to protect birds that are providing the strongest defense for the construction and alternative energy industries (to name just two). Our impact, they are quick to reply—pointing to the “estimates” so relentlessly promoted by the American Bird Conservancy, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and others—is a drop in the bucket compared to that of outdoor cats.*
As long as junk science is legitimized and facts are up for grabs, the greatest threat to birds isn’t cats, glassy buildings, or wind farms—but the organizations and individuals who continue (knowingly or not) to mislead the media and the public about the issue.
* And it’s not merely a matter of absolute numbers, either. Mortalities due to building collisions likely include healthy individuals, whereas cats (and other predators) tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak, or unhealthy. Indeed, at least two studies have investigated this in great detail, revealing that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy that birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars). [1, 2]
- Møller, A.P. and J. Erritzøe, Predation against birds with low immunocompetence. Oecologia, 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504.
- Baker, P.J., et al., Cats about town: Is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis, 2008. 150: p. 86–99.