Repeat After Me

Listening to NPR’s On the Media this weekend, I was struck by a story (first broadcast in 2006) about how certain “sticky” numbers—however dubious—find their way into the media landscape and beyond, as On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone noted:

“Four years ago, we delved into the mysterious number, said to be 50,000, of child predators online at any given time. It was cited by the NBC Dateline program “To Catch a Predator” and also by then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

But spokespersons for the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Crimes against Children Research Center said it was not based on any research they were aware of. The A.G.’s office at the time, well, they said it came from Dateline.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik, who spoke to Gladstone for the story, described the process whereby such slippery figures gain traction:

“An interesting phenomenon of these numbers is that they’ll often be cited to an agency or some government body, and then a study will pick it up, and then the press will repeat it from that study. And then once it appears in the press, public officials will repeat it again, and now it’s become an official number.”

All of which sounds very familiar—Bialik could easily be describing the “official numbers” put out by so many TNR opponents. Among those that have gained the most currency are the predation estimates from the Wisconsin Study, the American Bird Conservancy’s figure for the proportion of birds in the diets of free-roaming cats, and Dauphiné and Cooper’s estimate of free-roaming cats in the U.S.

The Wisconsin Study
Despite its having been discredited long ago (see, for example, “Addressing the Wisconsin Study”), the Wisconsin Study continues to be cited as if its estimate of 8–219 million birds killed by the state’s rural cats [1] was credible. As recently as last year, Longcore et al. cited the work in their essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” [2]

This, despite the fact that—15 years earlier—co-author Stanley Temple told the press:

“The media has had a field day with this since we started. Those figures were from our proposal. They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [3]

It’s true: the media has had a field day. Among the major newspapers to cite the Wisconsin Study are the Wall Street Journal [4], the New York Times [5], and the Los Angeles Times [6]. However, as I’ve described previously, it’s been the wildlife conservationists and bird advocates who’ve really had a field day with the Wisconsin Study:

  • The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) refers to the study, in its brochure Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. And the ABC goes one step further, pointing out that Coleman and Temple’s estimate was for rural cats, and that “suburban and urban cats add to that toll.” [7]
  • A 2009 article in Audubon Magazine suggests “cats were annually knocking off somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 million birds just in rural Wisconsin.” [9] To the magazine’s credit, they used Coleman and Temple’s low estimate—but none of the numbers from the Wisconsin Study are scientifically sound.

Birds Represent 20–30% of the Diet of Free-roaming Cats
According to an ABC report (downloadable from their website), “extensive studies of the feeding habits of domestic, free-roaming cats… show that approximately… 20 to 30 percent [of their diet] are birds.”

This, apparently, is the same report that Ellen Perry Berkeley debunked in her book, TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement, noting that the ABC’s 20–30% figure was not based on “extensive studies” at all. [10] In fact, just three sources were used: the now-classic “English Village” study by Churcher and Lawton [11], the Wisconsin Study (described above), and Mike Fitzgerald’s contribution to “The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour.” [12]

This gets a little complicated, so bear with me.

When Churcher and Lawton reported, “overall, birds comprised 35% of the total catch,” [11] they were referring to prey tallies recorded by study participants—not to the overall diets of the cats involved. Figures obtained through similar methods for the Wisconsin Study were 20–23%, [1, 13, 14] which the authors suggest—citing Fitzgerald’s comprehensive review of predation and dietary studies—are in line with other work:

“Extensive studies of the feeding habits of free-ranging domestic cats over 50 years and four continents [12] indicate that small mammals make up approximately 70% of these cats’ prey while birds make up about 20%.” [14]

But they’re comparing apples and oranges. Both the English Village and Wisconsin Studies report the percentage of birds returned as a portion of the “total catch,” whereas Fitzgerald reports percentage by frequency (i.e., the occurrence of birds in the stomach contents or scats of free-roaming cats), a point apparently lost on Coleman and Craven. The 21% figure [12] they refer to, then, is simply not comparable to their own (or that of the English Village study, a fact Churcher and Lawton acknowledge in their paper). As Berkeley notes, “this would put birds, as a portion of the diet of cats, at roughly 7 to 10.5 percent—nowhere near the ‘20 to 30 percent’ figures unleashed on the unscientific public by ABC!”

To put all of this into more familiar terms, it’s a bit like saying that coffee makes up 20–30% of the American diet versus saying that 20–30% of Americans drink coffee each day.

Nevertheless, 13 years after the ABC first published its report, the myth persists. The report—including the mistaken dietary figures—is still available. And the National Audubon Society has helped perpetuate the error, noting in its Resolution Regarding Control and Management of Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats:

“…it has been estimated that birds represent 20–30% of the prey of feral and free-ranging domestic cats.”

Estimates of Free-roaming Cats
In January, Steve Holmer, the ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, told the Los Angeles Times, “The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide].” Sounds like an awful lot of cats—nearly one for every two humans in the country. So where does this figure come from?

The source is a paper by Nico Dauphiné and Robert Cooper (which can be downloaded via the ABC website), presented at the Fourth International Partners in Flight conference. In it, Dauphiné and Cooper use some remarkably creative accounting, beginning with an unsubstantiated estimate of unowned cats, to which they add an inflated number of owned cats that spend time outdoors. In the end, they conclude that there are “117–157 million free-ranging cats in the United States.” [15] (For a more thorough explanation, see my previous post on the subject.)

Estimating the number of free-roaming cats wasn’t even the point of their paper. As the title—“Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) On Birds In the United States: A Review of Recent Research with Conservation and Management Recommendations”—suggests, the primary purpose was to describe the cats’ impact on birds. The authors’ exaggerated figure was merely a convenient route to their estimate of birds killed annually by cats: “a minimum of one billion birds” [15] (which, it should be clear, has the potential to become a very sticky number).

Holmer goes a step further, using only the upper limit of the range published by Dauphiné and Cooper, and making the subtle—but important—shift from free-ranging to feral cats.

When I asked him about this, he explained that those figures were “based on an earlier version of Nico’s latest paper and are now being updated in our materials.” I don’t know that any such changes were made; and in any event, the bogus estimate has already been published in the L.A. Times—as if it were true.

*     *     *

TNR opponents will often point to the vast collection of research studies, government reports, news accounts, and the like, that support their assertions. Drill down a bit into that collection, though, and they all start to look alike: the same familiar sources, the same flawed studies—and the same bogus figures. These figures have become the kind of “official numbers” Bialik refers to: quantitative poseurs owing their popularity to tireless—and irresponsible—repetition more than anything else.

Literature Cited
1. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., On the Prowl, in Wisconsin Natural Resources. 1996, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Madison, WI. p. 4–8.

2. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

3. Elliott, J., The Accused, in The Sonoma County Independent. 1994. p. 1, 10.

4. Sterba, J.P., Tooth and Claw: Kill Kitty?, in Wall Street Journal. 2002: New York. p. A.1

5. Barcott, B., Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?, in New York Times. 2007: New York.–birds-t.html

6. Kennedy, J.M., Killer Among Us, in Los Angeles Times. 2003: Los Angeles.

7. ABC, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. n.d., American Bird Conservancy: The Plains, VA.

8. FWS, Migratory Bird Mortality. 2002, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA.

9. Williams, T., Felines Fatale, in Audubon Magazine. 2009, National Audubon Society: New York, NY.

10. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

11. Churcher, P.B. and Lawton, J.H., “Predation by domestic cats in an English village.” Journal of Zoology. 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455.

12. Fitzgerald, B.M., Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 123–147.

13. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., Effects of Free-Ranging Cats on Wildlife: A Progress Report, in Fourth Eastern Wildlife Damaage Control Conference. 1989: University of Nebraska—Lincoln. p. 8–12.

14. Coleman, J.S., Temple, S.A., and Craven, S.R., Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma. 1997, University of Wisconsin, Wildlife Extension.

15. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219.