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Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations?

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Even though they are fed daily by their owners, free-ranging pet cats Felis catus may kill wild birds and, given their high densities (typically > 200 cats/km2), it has been postulated that cat predation could be a significant negative factor affecting the dynamics of urban bird populations. In this study, we: (1) used questionnaire surveys in 10 sites within the city of Bristol, UK, to estimate cat density; (2) estimated the number of birds killed annually in five sites by asking cat owners to record prey animals returned home; and then (3) compared the number of birds killed with breeding density and productivity to estimate the potential impact of cat predation. In addition, we (4) compared the condition of those birds killed by cats versus those killed in collisions, e.g. window strikes. Mean (± sd) cat density was 348 ± 86 cats/km2 (n = 10 sites); considering the eight species most commonly taken by cats, the mean ratios of adult birds/cats and juvenile birds/cats across the five sites were 1.17 ± 0.23 and 3.07 ± 0.74, respectively. Approximately 60% of the cats studied for up to 1 year at each site never returned any prey home; despite this, the estimated number of birds killed was large relative to their breeding density and productivity in many sites. Across species, cat-killed birds were in significantly poorer condition than those killed following collisions; this is consistent with the notion that cat predation represents a compensatory rather than additive form of mortality. Interpretation of these results is, however, complicated by patterns of body mass regulation in passerines. The predation rates estimated in this study would suggest that cats were likely to have been a major cause of mortality for some species of birds. The effect of cat predation in urban landscapes therefore warrants further investigation. The potential limitations of the current study are discussed, along with suggestions for resolving them.
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Keywords: fluctuating asymmetry; garden birds; hyperpredation; introduced species; urban biodiversity

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2008

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