Bad news about free-roaming cats

Lucky Wilbury, our most recent shelter cat, lounging on the cat throne. We have no intention of allowing Lucky outdoors off leash, as much for his protection as for the wildlife. Our previous cat, Bart, snuck out the door one night when the coyotes were howling and Great Horned Owls hooting. He was never seen again. We feel like we let him down and only hope that he met a quick, merciful end, not like the weeks, months, or years of suffering endured by most stray and feral cats.

There’s been a recent flurry of bad news about free-roaming cats, which is timely considering a recent visit to the comments section of one LB&E post by an incipient cat hoarder. His last comment was so out of touch with reality that I did him a favor by declining to publish it. That’s tragically typical of the breed, but I hold a polyanna-ish confidence in the power of facts to overcome the disinformation thrown around by obsessive cat defenders (OCDs).

Oregon Plague: Woman Contracted Disease From Cat

Thought theBlack Death” was history? Think again. These days, plague is usually contracted from the bites of fleas in and around rodent colonies, but cats and dogs that eat infected rodents can contract and transmit the disease and/or bring home infected fleas to their human families. (Warning: The article is headed by a grisly photo of the original victim’s blackened hand.)

Rabies threat prompts town to trap feral cats

A kitten adopted from a TNR program tests positive for rabies:

The kitten was friendly and domesticated, according to the family that adopted it. Because of its demeanor, police aren’t sure that the kitten was part of the feral colony – there is a chance it was abandoned in the park. [emphasis mine]

One big reason that TNR is such a failure at reducing, much less eliminating, feral cat colonies is that the conspicuous presence of “managed” colonies in public places tends to attract people looking for places to dump unwanted pets. Inadequate commitment to vaccinating all cats in a colony at recommended intervals to prevent outbreaks of rabies, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia virus, etc. makes it a public health failure, too.

Study Finds Free-Roaming Cats Pose Threat from “Serious Public Health Diseases”

This press release from the American Bird Conservancy reports on an important new paper published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health: “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats,” by R.W. Gerhold and D.A. Jessup (2012). The study reviewed the various diseases that infect free-roaming cats and the implications for public health of trying to manage feral cat populations via TNR. Three significant findings related to the second story above:

  • Free-roaming cats are disproportionately responsible for exposing humans to rabies.
  • Cat colonies “managed” by TNR attract unneutered, unvaccinated cats and increase their survivorship and reproductive success, leading to increases in colony size and potential for disease transmission.
  • Feeding stations for feral cats attract wildlife such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes that may transmit rabies and other diseases to the cats and/or carry feline diseases into the wild. (Wild predators that prey on free-roaming cats are also vulnerable to their diseases and parasites; strains of feline leukemia virus that have killed critically endangered Florida Panthers have been linked to domestic cats.)

An even more insidious public health menace related to free-roaming cats is toxoplasmosis. The organism that causes this disease can infect many animals, but cats are the only ones that pass the parasite’s infective oocysts in their feces. A cat may only shed oocysts for a couple of weeks early in the infection, but they can persist in contaminated soil—garden beds, children’s sand boxes—for years. Authors Gerhold and Jessup cited a 2011 study that found that 63 percent of the patients with acute toxoplasmosis had become infected through contact with cat feces.

One more cat item that relates to the “kitty-cam” study in Georgia:

Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict

The authors conducted a survey of opinions about feral cats and their management with cat colony caretakers (CCCs) and bird conservation professionals (BCPs) across the United States. Naturally, they found strong polarization between the two groups (even though substantial portions of both described themselves as both cat- and bird-people), and they also documented how poorly informed/in denial CCCs were about the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and public health. Even among the BCPs, awareness of feral cat issues was lower among respondents who lacked college degrees, so there’s a need for outreach and education even within the bird conservation community.

The authors suggest:

To the extent the beliefs held by CCCs are rooted in lack of knowledge and mistrust, rather than denial of directly observable phenomenon, the conservation community can manage these conflicts more productively by bringing CCCs into the process of defining data collection methods, defining study/management locations, and identifying common goals related to caring for animals… Our findings suggest that when such collaborative measures are not logistically possible, CCCs may be more likely to accept scientific results framed in terms of directly observable phenomenon (e.g., feral cats kill wild animals) rather than indirectly observable phenomenon (e.g., feral cats contribute to global declines among songbird populations). For instance, most CCCs see direct evidence of cats killing wild animals and would find denying those experiences difficult without creating some degree of cognitive dissonance.

In discussion of the Georgia “kitty-cam” study, OCDs glommed onto the low number of documented kills by the pets in the study, even though a conservative extrapolation of the results suggests that free-roaming cats kill more than 2 billion animals per year. It seems obvious that feral cats, even those that are being fed, will hunt more than well-fed, part-time outdoor pets, but seeing might be believing. It’s time to put “kitty-cams” on feral cats in managed colonies so that CCCs and OCDs can see the carnage up close and personal.

I get mail

I get a lot of mail this time of year asking for help with hummingbird identification. Those that are accompanied by photos are usually pretty easy to deal with, but ones like this give me a bad, bad feeling:

I live in Michigan. My daughter had a friend that lived along the Maple river. They saw yellow, red and green hummingbirds. These were brightly colored. She discribed the yellow one as looking like a goldfinch. They all appeared to be the same type of birds only different bright colors.

My sister just this week saw one that was a solid bright sky blue.

I’ve never heard of hummingbirds that have this coloring.

That’s because there aren’t any. A red and green hummingbird in Michigan is almost certainly a male Ruby-throated, but there are no yellow or solid sky blue hummingbirds among the world’s 340-odd species. None. Anywhere. However, those bright colors are found in many tiny songbirds, including warblers, buntings, and yes, finches. I shared this information, suggesting a couple of field guides and Web sites, and received this reply:

You answered my question as far as these being known.  They were definitely hummingbirds.  they were to small for anything else and the yellow, red and green variety were eating from the feeder.  my daughters friend had hit one on the yellow ones with his car and killed it.  Do you have any suggestions on how to attract them so I can get a picture

Oh, they were small? and eating from a feeder? and one was dead? Well, that’s certainly compelling evidence for not one but two previously unknown hummingbird species in the unexplored wilds of Michigan. Can’t wait to see those pictures.

Search of the Week: “what birds are protected in arizona”

Virtually all of them, and most by federal and state law.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted to protect America’s native birds, including the elegant Snowy Egret, from commercial exploitation.

Almost all birds native to the United States, whether migratory or not, are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This includes songbirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, roadrunners, birds of prey, waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, seabirds, etc.

State laws can be more restrictive than federal but not less, so the MBTA represents the minimum level of protection for the native birds it covers—and it’s one of the strongest wildlife laws in the world. It was enacted in response to the wholesale slaughter of egrets, herons, and other charismatic birds for the feather trade. (It also put an end to market hunting of native birds, but this came too late to help the Passenger Pigeon.)

The MBTA allows the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to issue permits for managed recreational hunting of most traditional prey species, lethal control of “nuisance” birds, and live capture and possession of raptors for falconry (in states where falconry is legal), but commercial exploitation is strictly prohibited. That means you can buy a state hunting license and federal and state “duck stamps” and legally shoot your limit of waterfowl, but you can’t sell them or any part of thereof (including mounted trophies). With some exceptions for migratory gamebirds (including captive-bred ornamental waterfowl and the aforementioned taxidermy), you also can’t keep protected birds in captivity (even for altruistic reasons) or have their feathers, bones, nests, or eggs in your possession without a scientific,  educational, or religious/cultural permit.

Native “upland/nonmigratory gamebirds” —quail, grouse, Wild Turkey, and (in Texas only) Plain Chachalaca—are under state jurisdiction. States often regulate hunting of introduced game species such as pheasants and partridges, but most nonnative species—House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock (Domestic/Feral) Pigeons, Eurasian Collared-Doves, Indian (Blue) Peafowl, feral chickensferal parrots, escaped (but non-breeding) domestic* or pet birds, etc.—have little or no legal protection anywhere in the U.S. except whatever might be afforded by county or city ordinances (which may have priority over state ordinances).

Disclaimer: IANAL. This is just a brief summary of common situations where the MBTA applies. It’s up to you to read federal, state, and local laws and understand how they apply to your situation. If in doubt, consult the appropriate government agency for advice.

* Special regulations apply to Mallards and Muscovy Ducks, since they exist in the U.S. as both domesticated (captive and feral) and native wild birds.

Einstein was not an entomologist

Male Squash Bee in pumpkin flower

Squash Bees are among approximately 4000 species of native bees (and thousands of other native pollinators) in North America.

If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe then man would have only four years of life left. – Albert Einstein

The quote above, as the caption to a photo of a honeybee, is making the rounds on Facebook. While I appreciate the environmental sentiment behind it, there are several serious problems:

  1. There’s no evidence that Einstein actually said or wrote this. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to bolster a statement’s credibility by misattributing it to a famous dead person.
  2. Even if he did, he was a physicist, not an entomologist or pollination ecologist. Being a genius in one field doesn’t make someone an instant expert in another. I’d be far more impressed if this quote was attributed to Steve Buchmann, but regrettably few people have heard of the University of Arizona’s eminent bee ecologist.
  3. “The bee” suggests that the quote refers to the honeybee (Apis mellifera), as we would understand that “the horse” refers to domestic horses and “the dog” refers to domestic dogs. There are thousands of other species of bees, and many of them are important to agriculture. North America’s native flora and indigenous agriculture got along quite well before European colonists introduced the honeybee, thank you very much.*
  4. I’m going to belabor the previous point, because I find it really annoying when people use “the [generic singular noun]” to make sweeping generalizations about large and diverse groups, e.g. saying “the hummingbird is the world’s smallest bird,” when many hummingbirds are larger than many small songbirds. AARGH!**

It’s hard to overstate the importance of pollinators, but too many people obsess over the honeybee without understanding their dark side. Yes, the decline in honeybee populations in North America is causing problems, mostly for beekeepers, the farms that use their services, and people who eat a lot of honey. From environmental and public safety perspectives, however, the decline isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As important as they are to agriculture, honeybees take food out of the mouths of native pollinators and present a real danger to people, pets, and livestock.

From most of the southern U.S. through Central and South America, the feral (“wild”) honeybee population carries genes from highly aggressive African strains that have earned them the nickname “killer bees.” Though virtually indistinguishable from pure European honeybees, Africanized bees attack en masse when they sense a threat to their hive. Even a single sting from any honeybee can be fatal to those allergic to their venom, but Africanized bees often sting their victims hundreds of times. You don’t have to be allergic to die from such an assault, and many people have. They also defend a larger area around their hives and will chase perceived predators farther than their European cousins do. Where these aggressive bees are known to occur, it’s prudent to assume that any feral honeybee hive is Africanized and give it a wide berth.

Native bees are excellent pollinators and nowhere near as dangerous to people and pets as honeybees. They already do much of the pollination work in our gardens, as long as some natural habitat remains nearby to support their nests and other ecological needs. If farmers are going to make effective use of native bees’ services, they’ll need to reduce field sizes and pesticide use and create mosaics of cultivation and native vegetation, and that’s also a good thing for thousands of other insect species plus birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. that can’t survive in our current agricultural wastelands.

References:

Bugguide.net: Native Bees of North America

Science Daily: Bees, Fruits and Money: Decline of Pollinators Will Have Severe Impact On Nature and Humankind

Science Daily: Honeybees May Not Be as Important to Pollination Services in the UK, Study Suggests

Science Daily: Native Bees Could Fill Pollinator Hole Left By Honeybees

Science Daily: Wild Pollinators Support Farm Productivity and Stabilize Yield

Montana Wildlife Gardener: Build a Mason Bee House in 5 Minutes

* Even if all bees of all species disappeared, we’d still have thousands of other pollinator species that fill similar ecological niches, including wasps and flies. Also, loss of pollinators wouldn’t directly affect crops that don’t need pollination: wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes come to mind.

** A FB commenter tried to defend the quote by claiming that the quotee was using “the bee” to refer to all pollinators(!). If so, why wouldn’t the quotee just say that explicitly? In fact, the history of the quote per Snopes.com suggests that it originated with French beekeepers, which supports the assumption that “the bee” in question is the honeybee.