The Truth About Cats and Birds

Pamelia and I just saw the new Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. We liked the movie and fell in love with the cat. Tjorven, a tabby-ish stray, looked, acted and constantly vocalized like a composite of our two late sister kitties, Hedda and Hopper.

Tjorven, the cat in the movie, lives indoors and outdoors—a combination that often ends badly for one animal or another.

When we adopted Hedda and Hopper, the woman at the animal shelter gave us two excellent pieces of advice: to adopt two cats instead of one (so the kitties would have a companion even when we weren't home) and to make them indoor cats. I didn't realize at the time how big a deal the latter point was.

Cats are predators. The 95 million outdoor and feral cats in the U.S. kill an estimated 532 million birds and more than a billion small animals each year. Wildlife groups have recently stepped up their campaign to reduce the number of these cats. Darin Schroeder, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy, wrote a letter that was published in one of our local newspapers and was headlined FERAL MENACE. He made the case that the widely-used Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs—in which feral cats are lured in with food, trapped, sterilized and then returned to the streets and countryside—don't significantly reduce the number of outdoor cats or the threat to wildlife. He argued that in fact such programs create other problems by encouraging large "TNR colonies" of cats and other animals in which diseases such as rabies can spread more easily.

The photo from the American Bird Conservancy website shows why ABC and other wildlife organizations encourage cat owners to keep their kitties indoors.

It's interesting to look back on the history of outdoor cats and their affect on wildlife and disease transmission. In 1232, during a break from excommunicating Holy Roman Emperors and launching the Inquisition, Pope Gregory IX declared that cats were diabolical because they were used in witchcraft and cult practices. This led to the slaughter of so many cats over the next century (and, by the way, the execution of many cat owners as witches and cult believers) that the rat population vastly multiplied. The rats harbored fleas that carried either the bubonic plague bacterium or an ebola-type virus (scientists have recently raised the latter possibility), which between 1347 and 1352 killed 25 million people—between a third and a half of Europe's population. (At the time this Black Death plague was blamed on everything from the alignment of the planets to bad air to a Jewish conspiracy to undermine Christianity.)

Natalie Wolchover, a writer for the Life's Little Mysteries and LiveScience websites, recently posed a question that combines elements of the Black Death saga and the current save-the-birds campaign: What If All the Cats in the World Suddenly Died? (Link:

Our indoor cats loved watching birds (an old illustration of mine—certainly not one of Pamelia's, which are infinitely better).

Wolchover's answer is that "things would quickly go to hell in a handbasket." Without cats to control rodents on farms, she says, significant portions of grain supplies would be eaten and contaminated. Wolchover cites a 1979 study that found that when cats were eradicated from a small island off New Zealand, the rat population quickly quadrupled and the sea bird population then declined because the rats were eating the birds' eggs.

On the other hand, I know from my visits to Australia that feral cats—not rats—have wiped out certain birds and marsupials on small islands and wreaked havoc with certain species on the mainland as well. Cats aren't native to Australia but arrived with European settlers and were released by the thousands into the goldfields to control the mice and rats that got into miners' supplies and spread disease. Australia enacted a national threat-abatement plan for feral cats in 2008, but the plan noted the complexity of solving the problem. Never mind rats; when cats were eliminated from one Australian island, the plan pointed out, rabbits multiplied and they destroyed the ecosystem.

As cat lovers and bird lovers, Pamelia and I tried to do our best by not allowing Hedda and Hopper to roam outdoors. They were happy cats who derived endless enjoyment from simply looking at birds out the window. If you're thinking of adding a kitty to your life, consider keeping it inside. The cat won't mind, and he or she will be safer too.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Just click on it.

Toilet Paper Tigers

On the subject of cats, don't be surprised if you start seeing news stories about the threat posed to tigers (and orangutans and other animals) by toilet paper. Not just any toilet paper,but the Paseo brand produced by Asia Pulp and Paper. It is the fastest-growing brand in the U.S., according to the World Wildlife Fund, which is targeting Paseo and encouraging a consumer boycott.

The WWF says that Asia Pulp and Paper has pulped five million acres of rainforest in Sumatra, a nature-rich island in Indonesia that has lost half of its rainforest since 1985. Sumatra is the only place in the world where tigers, elephants and orangutans coexist. The WWF is encouraging consumers not only to boycott Paseo but also to use only Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified or 100% recycled toilet paper. (Link:

A former Sumatran rain forest.

As a reminder of what's at stake in clear-cutting, here's a quote from my copy of The Bedside Book of Beasts: "A typical four-square-mile patch of rainforest will contain the following species (not individuals): 1,500 flowering plants, 750 trees, 125 mammals, 400 birds, 100 reptiles, 60 amphibians, 150 butterflies and probably over 50,000 of insects."

Illuminating Fireflies

What happens if you leave the camera lens open long enough to capture fireflies moving about? If you're really good, like photographer and physicist Kristian Cvecek, you create visual magic:

Click on the link below for more of Kristian Cvecek's firefly images.

Soap Test Here's a follow-up, sort of, to our recent experiment with corn starch and water. A blogger called Wendolonia tried heating Ivory Soap in her microwave oven. Because there is so much air in Ivory (it floats, remember, just like Saturn), the soap...well, look at the photo and read her blog. (Link:

Yes, this is what happens to a microwaved bar of Ivory.

Joke of the Day

A thank you to Georgia correspondent Eva for posting this apropos joke from comedian Steven Wright: "I put instant coffee in the microwave and almost went back in time."

Answers to the Last Puzzlers

The African countries on the map below (including a few the Puzzler didn't even ask you to name):

31-Democratic Republic of Congo
23-South Africa

Today's Puzzlers

1) Unscramble these letters to form words related to nature, science or art:

a) rnew
b) quimsoot
c) vigytar

2) What is shown in the image below?

Can you guess?

1) The first-ever isolated cell from a mastodon, as seen by French researchers
2) A typical pigment cell from the eye of a bluebird
3) The Mataiva Atoll in the South Pacific as seen from the International Space Station