In the area in which I live in south-central Pennsylvania Ring-necked pheasants and Bob-white quail were once abundant. Suddenly, beginning in the 1970s, their numbers suffered a dramatic decline resulting in the complete disappearance of both species by the 1990s. Pheasants are no longer seen in Pennsylvania fields, except on game lands where they're stocked by the game commission, and quail are never seen nor heard anymore in the county in which I live.
The extirpation has been variously ascribed to bird flu, West Nile virus, habitat loss, etc. but I've long suspected that feral house cats played a major role. Now a study published in the science journal Nature reinforces my admittedly speculative opinion. Here's the abstract of the study:
Anthropogenic threats, such as collisions with man-made structures, vehicles, poisoning and predation by domestic pets, combine to kill billions of wildlife annually. Free-ranging domestic cats have been introduced globally and have contributed to multiple wildlife extinctions on islands. The magnitude of mortality they cause in mainland areas remains speculative, with large-scale estimates based on non-systematic analyses and little consideration of scientific data. Here we conduct a systematic review and quantitatively estimate mortality caused by cats in the United States. We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 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.These numbers sound almost incredibly high to me, but even if they're off by a factor of ten the toll taken by cats is immense. And it's not just un-owned cats that are the problem. Owned cats which are allowed to roam freely throughout a neighborhood take a heavy toll on birds at feeders as well as mammals like chipmunks and voles. It is, in my opinion, simply irresponsible of people who own cats to allow them to come and go as they please. Unconfined cats are a disaster to wildlife and people simply should not own them if they're unwilling to keep them in the house.
There, I've said it. Let the hate mail from cat enthusiasts begin.