For more information on my paintings:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Native Birds vs Domestic Cats

U.S. wild bird losses to domestic, free-roaming cats may very well blow your mind. Scientific studies have estimated approximately 500 million birds in the U.S. alone are killed every year by both feline house pets and feral domestic cats. That's about 500,000,000 bird deaths per year.

Let's put that into perspective.

The human population of the U.S. is just over 300 million people as of 2010.

Or how about this...there are about 72 million pet dogs in the U.S. and about 82 million pet cats, for a total of about 154 million canine and feline pets currently (numbers of feral cats are unknown).

It's hard to say how many of these half a billion bird deaths are of introduced species such as starlings and some types of sparrow rather than our native birds (American Robins, warblers, Mourning Doves, etc.) - or how many are unfledged baby birds rather than adults. Perhaps the 0verall numbers are a bit lower as well - I've seen lower-end estimates put at about 300,000,000 bird deaths per year in the U.S. as a result of the tabby cat. In my mind, whether the real number is 250 million or 500 million per year, it doesn't matter. We still have a problem to face and issues to consider.

In comparison, wind turbines have been documented to kill less than 500,000 birds per year and as a nation we seem very worried about those losses. In fact I've seen this number used as reasoning against the use of wind turbines as alternative sources of electricity. Don't get me wrong, I want to see bird deaths from turbines minimized or eliminated as well, but my point is that we have an even bigger issue than wind turbines.

The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to "domesticate" cats from a wild species in Africa so in no way are our pets "native" on this continent. Our domestic cats were brought to North America with the first European settlers just a few hundred years ago, so the native populations of wild birds have not had a chance to evolve to evade these very effective, silent predators.

Some might say "survival of the fittest." Perhaps, but are we mentally and emotionally prepared to lose many of the unique bird species that make this continent what it is? Or are we OK instead with it looking and feeling like Europe with only house sparrows and starlings at our feeders? Our native sparrows, finches, meadowlarks, buntings, warblers, wrens, robins, and wading birds (among others) have taken a huge hit from cats - are we OK with these losses?

If you think extinction can't possibly happen I'll say this one thing to you:

Remember the passenger pigeon?

I love cats, I really do. I love dogs too. But I love our native wild birds and mammals at least as much as I love domestic pets. With the kind of onslaught birds are having to contend with from our pets (and feral animals), our native wild birds don't stand a chance. When the wild birds are gone, they're gone. There is no getting them back. I know I am not prepared for a springtime with no bird songs, nor would I be thrilled with the loss of the variety of birds we have. I can't imagine going on a walk and seeing only starlings and European sparrows. I love seeing robins, warblers, thrushes, shorebirds, and so much more. The great variety of birds we have here on this continent is truly amazing - a gift from Nature. I'd like to give that same gift to the next several generations of Americans as well.

When I walk my dogs, I'm a responsible dog owner and keep my canines leashed so they don't scare other people or chase other animals. Please, do the same with your cats - keep them indoors or somehow under control. Don't let them roam (I can hear the objections already). Besides preventing them from killing birds and small mammals (and dropping them on your pillow as an offering), keeping your cats indoors prevents them from being run over by cars, eaten by coyotes, or poisoned by chemicals or rodent poisons.

Bells firmly attached to a cat's collar might be another option. There is conflicting evidence as to whether it really works to scare off birds but it may be worth a try.

If an indoor cat needs outdoor time and you have the space, you could build an outdoor enclosure for her - something similar to a large aviary, but to keep the cat in rather than a bird. Another option is to walk your cat on a leash. While walking a cat on a leash may sound silly I've seen this done many times. Yes, cats get used to it. One of my neighbors here in Maine does this a few times a day with her tabby. Granted, this isn't a fitness-excursion for the owner, but it gives her cat some quality time outdoors while keeping birds safe.

One other reason to keep your cat inside? Life expectancy. The average life expectancy of a pet outdoor cat is about 5 years. Indoor cats' average life expectancy is over 12 years.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wildlands and Wilderness

I want to start this post by saying my heart and thoughts go out to the people in Japan who continue to be affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor disasters. I will post more about some of those things at a later time but for now, I send my best wishes to the other side of the planet tonight and move on to the post I had intended to write last week.

I've been living along the east coast of the USA now for a little over a year. I started off in New Jersey, near Parsippany, not too far from the Big Apple, then moved to Maine in June of 2010. Prior to that I'd been living in the western US since 1992 - mostly Colorado, but with stints in Washington (state) and Montana. While I lived in the western states I traveled extensively in the Rocky Mountains. Over time, my favorite places became the wildlands and wilderness areas - places like Indian Peaks Wilderness, the remote areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, the North Cascades, the Rockies in Montana, Banff and Jasper Parks in Canada, and of course, the wilderness of Yellowstone and Teton National Parks. 

The western US is changing, but it still has vast areas of wildland, if not wilderness. Of course Alaska undeniably has the most wilderness of any state. While beautiful and truly wild, it's fairly inaccessible to most folks in the Lower 48. And that's probably a good thing for the Alaskan wilderness!

I guess I'd grown used to being near wild areas or wilderness, perhaps even taken them for granted in some respects. Whenever I wanted to get away, I just picked a wild area and I was there within an hour or two, my spirit once again quiet and restored. But now that I live on the eastern seaboard I realize just what it is that I, and everyone else here, is missing by living in a part of the country that has been well and thoroughly tamed.

We're missing our visceral connection to our roots as humans - our tie to Nature at it deepest level. Being in the wilderness can be meditative, it restores some part of our spirit that we didn't know we had, or had forgotten long ago. And it has a magic that just can't be put into words.

I have watched city kids go from being utterly bored by the concept of Yellowstone to the most avid animal of enthusiasts in the space of about an hour. Show them a bison calf being born, or a wolf taking meat to a den full of cubs, or an elk baby learning to walk, and their attitudes are transformed almost instantly to excitement and awe. Many an adult biologist I know was turned on to the profession as a child - and many while visiting a place such as Yellowstone.

Unfortunately there is nothing like Yellowstone anymore on the east coast.

Locals tell me that the northern areas of Maine are really the only "wild" areas left here. Perhaps. But how wild can they be when all of the large animals have been exterminated? Yes, there may be many acres where not a home is to be seen, but the woods are quiet. Where is the bugling of the male elk in rut? The howl of wolves? And now, even the sound of deer hooves on the forest floor may be a thing of the past in the Pine Tree State. Most people in Maine are surprised to learn that not so long ago, herds of elk and caribou roamed the forests here. They've been completely wiped out in the last several decades due to hunting and development. Gone too are the wolves, sea mink, cougar, timber rattlesnake, Labrador duck, great auk, passenger pigeon, Eskimo curlew, and common murre. And now the white-tailed deer population is being heavily impacted.

Maine has been tamed. Many of the wild animals are gone. Wilderness and human development are mutually exclusive.

What I've come to realize is that for me, the animals really define and personify the wildlands and wilderness. If they are gone, so too is that sense of wilderness. More than simply a gauge to the health of the ecosystem, to me they are much of the life, the energy that makes up a place. What would Yellowstone be without its bison, elk, moose, bear, and wolves? Or Glacier without its mountain goats? Or Rocky Mountain National Park without its bighorns? In my mind, they would just be big, pretty, but empty spaces devoid of their most vibrant living energy.

Many people who have lived in the eastern states for most of their lives, or only in major cities in the west, don't even have a concept of what wilderness is, what it means, and how important it is to us as humans. More than just a vacation spot, for me wilderness reminds me there is more to this planet than just me and my fellow humans. I come to understand that animals (including humans), ecosystems, and even the planet itself are all living, breathing entities just by being in the wilderness and observing. Like us, wild animals are born, they play with their friends, they feel physical and emotional pain, they try to raise their families as best as they can, they sometimes suffer, and eventually, also like us, they die.

We are more like the wild animals than most of us humans care to admit. But being like wild animals makes sense, because we are also a product of Nature...except that we choose to ignore that fact most of the time.

It's scary to realize we're part of the same web of life on Earth that we seem to be intent on dismantling.

It's easier just to ignore our roots in Nature when we're chopping down a forest to get to the tar sands below it, to feed our petroleum addiction for a few more months. It's easier just to ignore our connection to the sea when we're taking krill out of the mouths of whales in order to feed our health food addiction with one more unproven "miracle cure."

We would do ourselves a huge favor if we as a species made decisions by thinking as the Iroquois Confederacy did - considering the impact of the decision for seven generations to come. And I would add: not just human generations, but also the wilderness and its animal generations as well.

Wilderness should be our benchmark - the standard we measure ourselves against. The standard we keep in mind when we make decisions as a species. Its presence or absence tells us how much we value, and acknowledge, our connection to our roots - our connection to the other life on this planet. If we ignore that connection to Nature, we take a huge risk in my opinion.

It's likely too late to re-create wilderness in the eastern US, but I would love it if, as a country, we make it a priority to preserve the wildlands, wilderness, and wild animals we still have in the west and in Alaska. Our children, grandchildren, and 5 more generations will thank us for allowing them a chance to experience a little bit of Nature as it was when humans were just learning how to make fire from stone.