Cat Love Can Kill
7 ways animal lovers can protect cats and wildlife
Dear Avant Gardener, I spent the last 10 months planning, buying, planting, and caring for native plants as an excited first-time homeowner. I fought non-native invasive camphor trees, Caesar weed, Chinese tallow, and mimosa from encroaching on my property. I hand built bird feeders and bird houses. I made all of these efforts to draw native wildlife and create suitable habitat for them.
I can no longer do this in good conscience. I have taken down my bird feeders and will address my bird boxes at the end of nesting season. I no longer feel comfortable planting and maintaining a native ecosystem in my yard.
There are only a handful of feral cats in my neighborhood, but my direct next-door neighbor maintains 6 indoor/outdoor cats as pets. I have documented these pet outdoor cats hunting and killing a young rabbit, squirrels, native birds, and frogs since I set cameras on my property in January 2023. I have noticed increased stalking and hunting activity directly within my native plants and underneath my homemade bird feeder. This morning was the final straw as a dead northern mockingbird lay directly beneath my bird feeder with clear signs of depredation by domestic cat. I will not continue to draw wildlife in with native plants that creates a honeypot of native wildlife for these cats to kill.
I have too large of a property for most humane deterrent methods and after bringing this issue to the neighbor's attention they are unwilling to house their cats permanently indoors. I believe this issue, despite being controversial, will affect many of your readers and is an important issue to bring forth to those interested in planting natives and rewilding their property.
Do pet cats really deserve to be outdoors more than native wildlife deserves to live? — Rebecca, North Florida
How dispiriting! No, pet cats don’t “deserve” to be outdoors. I don’t think you’re asking or ready for advice, so I’m publishing your letter and related “Why?” and “How” sections below to let readers know what we all can do about the danger of free roaming cats to wildlife — as well as themselves. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Looking for experts on sunflowers to provide quotes and expert advice for a major national publication. Looking for planting tips (planting by seed vs. mature plant, etc.), care requirements (soil, water, sunlight, fertilizer, pruning), division/propagating tips, varieties (most common varieties of the plant; aim for 5 or so), and common problems/pests. — HARO (Help A Reporter Out)
OK, this is not a subscriber question; it’s a journalist’s query. I have been responding to such queries as part of my mission to promote ecological landscaping: to educate reporters, get ecologically-sound information into their articles, and make it easier for people to find Dear Avant Gardener. (The number of links to Dear Avant Gardener from high-quality sites helps determine where my articles show up in a Google search.)
Unfortunately, the queries themselves, as well as the reliance of publications on ads and affiliate revenue, reinforce traditional horticulture and use of commercial lawn care products like fertilizer and pesticides. The sunflower query, for example, assumes fertilizer use, common varieties (as opposed to species), and pests (as opposed to attracting beneficial insects). And then there’s the real challenge of recommending native plants in a national publication.
On the brighter side, scanning the three-times-daily HARO emails is an amusing education in popular culture. For example, here’s the context of the sunflower query:
47) Voice Cloning (Lifewire)
48) Gardening experts on Sunflowers (Anonymous)
49) Expert Needed for Commentary on Hair Oils (SHAPE)
50) Reasons People Lie On Dating Apps (AskMen.com - AskMen UK)
I’ve sent about 30 pitches in two months; every pitch, if opened, educates a journalist. In addition, these pitches resulted in quotes in four original articles. I’m most pleased about advice to “Mow Your Lawn Less Often” in 11 Actually Easy Ways to Be More Sustainable at Home, According to Experts in The Spruce (33 million visits per month). Thousands of people, even tens of thousands (in addition to you, dear readers), are now aware that lawn mowers’ inefficient engines generate five percent of all US air pollution. Hooray! And, because articles are reposted (e.g., on Yahoo!) this article generated several links so others can find Dear Avant Gardener’s articles.
I do truly love native sunflowers, so here’s how I responded:
Thank you for writing about sunflowers — keystone plants!
I am a Master Gardener and writer of the featured Substack column DearAvantGardener.com about how to make your yard more eco, joyful, and easy-care.
Did you know that most bird species cannot survive without feeding their young hundreds of caterpillars a day? Native sunflowers are one of the very small group of keystone plants that host the vast majority of moths and butterflies -- more than 50 species. There are more than 60 native sunflowers; here are my favorites:
Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), native to the western two thirds of the country, is the ancestor of most cultivated sunflowers. Cultivation can inadvertently breed out benefits to native insects so it's a great idea to grow some of the wild, uncultivated species to ensure you're nurturing at-risk native bees and others at the foundation of our food web. Sometimes called "wild sunflower," this annual species has smaller flowers (three to four inches) than its showy descendants, but it is super easy to grow from seed in sun or part sun, dry to average moisture, and many types of soil.
Don't despair if you've got a shady yard! You can brighten up your yard and see it abuzz with bees and butterflies by growing woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus). Unlike common sunflowers, this eastern U.S. native is perennial, so it doesn't need to be replanted each year. It will spread over years to form colonies, so give it plenty of room. Like many native plants, woodland sunflower thrives without fertilizer in many types of soil. Just don't give this dry-loving plant too much moisture. I recommend buying plants if you want to see them covered with 2 inch sunflowers from late summer through fall this year — as I did in my front yard last year.
Looking for a sunflower that tolerates salt for a coastal or even roadside lot? Dune sunflower (Helianthus debilis) tolerates salt and thrives in dry, sandy soil in sun. In its native range in Florida and the Gulf Coast, it is perennial and flowers nearly year-round. Unlike most sunflowers that grow four feet or taller, dune sunflower is only one to three feet high and spreads, creating masses of bright flowers along the seashore. Again, I recommend planting plants.
Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is yet another perennial native sunflower with the added benefit of having delicious edible roots, sometimes called sunchokes. Native to all states, Jerusalem artichoke can be grown from seed and will flower late summer into fall in a sunny location. It tolerates a variety of conditions, including drought. Eventually growing to 10 feet tall and spreading, Jerusalem artichoke is best suited to the wilder edges of a yard.
Here’s to a joyful June!
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Domestic cats (Felis catus) make delightful house pets. However, with 60 to 100 million homeless cats, they are also invasive predators. A distinct species, domestic cats are descended from European and African wild cats (Felis sylvestris). Awareness of their destructiveness has been growing since a 2013 meta-analysis by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute concluded,
We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact. — Nature
Owners who let their cats roam underestimate their lethalness. One reason is that cats bring home less than one in four kills, based on a study that used National Geographic’s Crittercams to observe the outdoor behavior of house cats.
"The results were certainly surprising, if not startling," said Kerrie Anne Loyd of the University of Georgia, who was the lead author of the study. "In Athens-Clarke County, we found that about 30 percent of the sampled cats were successful in capturing and killing prey, and that those cats averaged about one kill for every 17 hours outdoors or 2.1 kills per week. It was also surprising to learn that cats only brought 23 percent of their kills back to a residence." — Wildlife Management Institute
Though some owners romanticize the outdoor life, letting cats roam free endangers the cats themselves.
While cats kept safe inside generally live for about 12 to 20 years, cats left to fend for themselves outdoors are usually dead before they reach 5 years old. If they’re not hit by vehicles — the most common cause of death for cats allowed outside — they succumb to other dangers. — PETA
The Crittercam study found that Indoor-outdoor house cats face similar dangers:
45 percent of the cats crossed roads and 20 percent each entered crawlspaces and storm drain systems where they could become trapped. In addition, 25 percent of the study cats interacted with strange cats increasing the potential for fights or disease transmission. Eighty-five percent of the project cats exhibited at least one risk behavior. . . . — Wildlife Management Institute
Here are seven ways each of us can protect both cats and wildlife:
Cat owners: Keep cats indoors and give them opportunities for play; build a catio — anything from a window box to an elaborate play area; do not abandon them.
Provide cover for birds in your yard — e.g., dense plantings of shrubs and trees.
Feed birds naturally with plants; place bird baths and any feeders at least 10 feet in each direction from places where cats can hide; remove feeders if you find evidence of predation by cats.
Focus on feeding birds naturally through native plants that provide seeds, berries and insects. Native plants won’t cause birds to congregate in high numbers in one spot every day like a feeder does, which is what attracts hunting cats. — National Wildlife Federation
Discourage cats from coming into your yard with motion detector lights or sprinklers or, if necessary, a six-foot fence without vegetation cats can use as ladders.
Don’t feed strays or support trap, neuter, release programs; instead, adopt or support trap, neuter, and adopt programs.
Advocate for “no trespass” statutes and protection for native predatory species. For example, Portland’s Cats Safe at Home advocates for
Safeguards for property owners who want to protect wildlife on their land: Maintaining “no trespass” and other nuisance statutes and strategies that specifically provide property owners/ managers with effective, legal, humane methods to address cats that come onto their property.
Protection for native predatory species that may prey upon free roaming, stray and feral cats: Impacts on free roaming cats will not be recognized as a legitimate basis for the trapping, relocation or lethal control of native predator species such as coyotes and raccoons. — Cats Safe at Home
Spread the word about the dangers to cats and wildlife of uncontrolled outdoor access.
The brilliantly named Cats Safe at Home addresses the dangers of outdoor cats by emphasizing the threat of outdoor life to the cats themselves, as well as to wildlife. Their innovative approach includes an annual catio tour.