This blog post was authored by Madison Arnold-Scerbo, a Library of Congress summer Junior Fellow in the Science Reference Section, and Tomoko Y. Steen, Ph.D., a Science Reference & Research Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division of the Library of Congress. Madison and Tomoko are also authors of the blog post “Can Cats Speak to Us?”
“It is impossible to deny that serious misunderstandings exist between cats and birds.” This assertion from a 1907 book, Our Domestic Animals, Their Habits, Intelligence and Usefulness, was an understatement. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, tensions between feral cats (cats that are not pets and have not been socialized with humans) and wild birds reached a breaking point.
Birds as Household Pets
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, small songbirds were one of the most popular pets in the United States. Publications such as Book of Household Pets and How to Manage Them (1866) and Pets of the Household: Their Care in Health and Disease (1895) dedicated a majority of their chapters to songbirds, especially canaries. As noted in Pets in America, the most popular cage birds in the United States through the 1930s were canaries (Grier, 48).
Music, around the turn of the twentieth century–something we tend to take for granted in the twenty-first century–was much more difficult to produce. Songbirds was one way to add musical ambiance to a home (Grier, 48). This passage from the 1866 household pets book sums up the appeal of birds:
Few things in creation are more beautiful than birds. Elegance of form, brilliancy or softness of color, gracefulness of motion – all combine to render them agreeable objects to the eye; and when to these gifts is added melodiousness of voice, no wonder that they should be, as they undoubtedly are, favorites with every one[sic] who has the slightest appreciation of loveliness in any shape. (Anon, 5)
As Americans moved into cities, pet birds were one of the only ways to enjoy the beauty of birds and feel connected to nature. Canaries were bred in captivity and sold in the United States, but many other birds were caught from the wild and trained to be pets (Grier, 48).
Impact of Cats on Wild Bird Populations
Cats are carnivores built to hunt. This was part of their initial appeal as farmers encouraged cats to control the rodent population threatening their grain supplies. However, this carnivorous nature became a problem once cat populations dramatically increased. Families abandoning cats when they moved also contributed to the population problem. Spraying and neutering cats was not a common or safe procedure at that time (Grier, 37).
Since so many people loved songbirds, the damage to the songbird population caused by cats was particularly problematic. In a 1910 text, Domesticated Animals and Plants: A Brief Treatise, Eugene Davenport harshly condemned the cat:
[The cat] has lost little of his innate savagery, and as a relentless foe of birds he has really become an enemy to our civilization. The sooner he could become extinct the better for our song birds on which we depend so much not only for our pleasure but for protection against the depredations of insects. (Davenport, 235)
(A full text version of Davenport’s work is available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Clearly, cats had their enemies. A 1916 bulletin entitled, The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life, published by the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, provides a glimpse into the extent of tensions between cats and birds. (A full text version of the bulletin is available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library).
In this bulletin, state ornithologist (bird expert) Edward Howe Forbush gives us a detailed account of the damage caused by cats. Forbush used data collected from bird enthusiasts across the state to quantify the extent of the problem. Killing birds was not only bad because songbirds were appealing and popular – birds also helped control insect populations. As bird populations declined, insect populations grew. Forbush also outlined a variety of methods to help solve the damage caused by cats. The chart (see figure 4) shows recommendations Forbush received on how to prevent cats from killing birds.
During this time, most cats frequently roamed freely outside, so the suggestion of confining cats indoors would have seemed odd. Additional unique suggestions included installing a bell on a cat’s collar (to make it difficult for them to sneak up on birds), allowing cats to be pecked in the nose by a bird, or tying a dead bird around a cat’s neck.
As the nineteenth and early twentieth century texts show, cats and birds had a very complicated relationship. While each had their admirers, it was a delicate balance keeping both populations in check.