Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Let's Eat All the Catbirds

My goal is to provide all of our cats with a well-rounded education, but Possumus Passamaquoddy is the only one with a keen interest in scientific subjects. When Possum and I have scientific discussions, he likes to be addressed as "Mr. Maquoddy" because it sounds like the name of a high school science teacher. Possum admires teachers. He really prefers to be addressed as "Dr. Maquoddy," but I keep telling him that it's ridiculous to pretend to have a doctorate when you aren't even 2 years old.

But I digress. Yesterday, we were discussing this article in the March 21 New York Times: "Tweety Was Right: Cats Are a Bird's No. 1 Enemy."

The article cites a recent study in The Journal of Ornithology that claims that cats, and not wind turbines (as previously hypothesized) were by far the No. 1 killer of baby gray catbirds in a suburb of Washington, D.C.  Here is a portion of the story:

“Cats are way up there in terms of threats to birds — they are a formidable force in driving out native species,” said Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, one of the authors of the study.
The American Bird Conservancy estimates that up to 500 million birds are killed each year by cats — about half by pets and half by feral felines. “I hope we can now stop minimizing and trivializing the impacts that outdoor cats have on the environment and start addressing the serious problem of cat predation,” said Darin Schroeder, the group’s vice president for conservation advocacy.

When Possum heard this, he was smug. "That many killed? Excellent work. And who wants catbirds?" he said. "They're obnoxious, they make dreadful racket, and they aren't even that tasty. You never eat them, I've noticed. But the babies taste better than the adults." Cats are doing their job, according to him. "Cat predation? Excuse me? If we didn't keep the bird population down — which is hard work, you know — the world would be covered in guano and all you'd ever hear was their deafening chirping," he said. "They'd decimate the bug and worm populations, too, but no one ever thinks of them. It's racist."

I said, "But, Possum, killing birds, especially babies, isn't universally considered a good thing." And I read him more of the article:

Yet wind turbines often provoke greater outrage than cats do, said Gavin Shire, vice president of the Bird Conservancy. “The idea of a man-made machine chopping a bird in half creates a visceral reaction,” he said, “while the idea of a predator with its prey in its mouth — well we’ve seen that on the Nature Channel. People’s reaction is that it is normal for cats to kill birds.”
Household cats were introduced in North America by European colonists; they are regarded as an invasive species and have few natural enemies to check their numbers. “They are like gypsy moths and kudzu — they cause major ecological disruption,” Dr. Marra said.
Possum is extra-sensitive to such remarks because he was born feral; he is a first-generation house cat. His fluffy tail began thrashing back and forth

"Gypsy moths? Kudzu? Check your lousy sources!" he meowed. "Look who's behind this so-called information. The American Bird Conservancy. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. No secret agendas there, huh? And guess who publishes this one-sided 'research'? The Journal of Ornithology.  It's all blatantly and outrageously pro-bird and anti-cat. Whatever happened to unbiased, objective research and reporting? And tell that Dr. Marra that Dr. Maquoddy wishes a plague of mice upon his house! He ought to remember that he's an invasive species, too!"

Possum pontificated on catbird research.

Possum convinced me that the article should be taken with a grain of salt. He reminded me of another article we'd read together, in The New Yorker: "The Truth Wears Off" (December 13), which describes the very human follies and foibles of most scientific research done in just about every field, from social psychology to gravity physics. It seems that, no matter how hard we try to experiment objectively, we unconsciously tend to skew and interpret research findings towards the results we want. And even if scientists manage not to, journal boards inevitably choose to publish research that reinforces, rather than disputes, the more popular and established theories. This is why so many new medical findings are disproven over time. One month you read that XYZ causes cancer, and later on, you roll your eyes as you read that it doesn't.

I told Possum he was clever to remember that. "The same issues could certainly apply to this catbird research." he said. "No mention was made of dogs in the study, for example. But while dogs may not be evolved enough to enjoy the taste of baby birds, they delight in fetching them and rolling around on top of them. And what about owls and hawks? No mention of them at all," said Possum.

And then he looked me in the eye. "And can we please keep in mind one central fact? They're called 'catbirds' for a reason. We're supposed to catch them. They're ours!" said Possum.

When I reminded him that we will have to begin paying for full access to The New York Times next week, he was aghast. Given this shoddy, anti-feline reporting, he doesn't think we should help bail them out. The Times is in serious decline, according to him. He recommended putting that monthly sum toward increased nutrition, in the form of Fancy Feast's "Fish & Shrimp Feast," to fuel four developing feline brains in this household.

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