Tag Archives: Tim Doherty

For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day

The Conversation

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On the prowl in the outback. Hugh McGregor/Arid Recovery, Author provided

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Cats kill more than a million birds every day across Australia, according to our new estimate – the first robust attempt to quantify the problem on a nationwide scale.

By combining data on the cat population, hunting rates and spatial distribution, we calculate that they kill 377 million birds a year. Rates are highest in Australia’s dry interior, suggesting that feral cats pose a serious and largely unseen threat to native bird species.


Read more: Ferals, strays, pets: how to control the cats that are eating our wildlife


This has been a contentious issue for more than 100 years, since the spread of feral cats encompassed the entire Australian mainland. In 1906 the ornithologist A.J. Campbell noted that the arrival of feral cats in a location often immediately preceded the decline of many native bird species, and he campaigned vigorously for action:

Undoubtedly, if many of our highly interesting and beautiful birds, especially ground-loving species, are to be preserved from total extinction, we must as a bird-lovers’ union, at no distant date face squarely a wildcat destruction scheme.

His call produced little response, and there has been no successful and enduring reduction in cat numbers since. Nor, until now, has there been a concerted effort to find out exactly how many birds are being killed by cats.

Counting the cost

To provide a first national assessment of the toll taken by cats on Australian birds, we have compiled almost 100 studies detailing the diets of Australia’s feral cats. The results show that the average feral cat eats about two birds every five days.

We then combined these statistics with information about the population density of feral cats, to create a map of the estimated rates of birds killed by cats throughout Australia.

Number of birds eaten per square kilometre. Brett Murphy, Author provided

We conclude that, on average, feral cats in Australia’s largely natural landscapes kill 272 million birds per year. Bird-kill rates are highest in arid Australia (up to 330 birds per square km per year) and on islands, where rates can vary greatly depending on size.

We also estimate (albeit with fewer data) that feral cats in human-modified landscapes, such as the areas surrounding cities, kill a further 44 million birds each year. Pet cats, meanwhile, kill about 61 million birds per year.

Overall, this amounts to more than 377 million birds killed by cats per year in Australia – more than a million every day.

Which species are suffering?

In a related study, we also compiled records of the bird species being killed by cats in Australia. We found records of cats killing more than 330 native bird species – about half of all Australia’s resident bird species. In natural and remote landscapes, 99% of the cat-killed birds are native species. Our results also show that cats are known to kill 71 of Australia’s 117 threatened bird species.

Birds that feed or nest on the ground, live on islands, and are medium-sized (60-300g) are most likely to be killed by cats.

Galahs are among the many native species being killed by feral cats. Mark Marathon, Author provided

It is difficult to put a million-plus daily bird deaths in context without a reliable estimate of the total number of birds in Australia. But our coarse assessment from many published estimates of local bird density suggests that there are about 11 billion land birds in Australia, suggesting that cats kill about 3-4% of Australia’s birds each year.

However, particular species are hit much harder than others, and the population viability of some species (such as quail-thrushes, button-quails and ground-feeding pigeons and doves) is likely to be especially threatened.

Our tally of bird deaths is comparable to similar estimates for other countries. Our figure is lower than a recent estimate for the United States, and slightly higher than in Canada. Overall, bird killings by cats seem to greatly outnumber those caused by humans.

In Australia, cats are likely to significantly increase the extinction risk faced by some bird species. In many locations, birds face a range of interacting threats, with cat abundance and hunting success shown to increase in fragmented bushland, in areas with high stocking rates, and in places with poorly managed fire regimes, so cat impacts compound these other threats.

Belling the cat

What can be done to reduce the impact? The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy recognises the threat posed by feral cats, albeit mainly on the basis of their role in mammal extinctions.

The threatened species strategy also prioritised efforts to control feral cats more intensively, eradicate them from islands with important biodiversity values, and to expand a national network of fenced areas that excludes feral cats and foxes.

But while fences can create important havens for many threatened mammals, they are much less effective for protecting birds. To save birds, cats will need to be controlled on a much broader scale.


Read more: The war on feral cats will need many different weapons


We should also remember that this is not just a remote bush problem. Roughly half of Australia’s cats are pets, and they also take a considerable toll on wildlife.

While recognising the many benefits of pet ownership, we should also work to reduce the detrimental impacts. Fortunately, there is increasing public awareness of the benefits of not letting pet cats roam freely. With such measures, cat owners can help to look after the birds in their own backyards, and hence contribute to conserving Australia’s unique wildlife.


The ConversationWe acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer (WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), David Paton (University of Adelaide), Alex Nankivell (Nature Foundation SA Inc.), Mike Lawes (University of KwaZulu-Natal), and Glenn Edwards (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to this article.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Invasive predators are eating the world’s animals to extinction – and the worst is close to home

The Conversation

Tim Doherty, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Invasive species are a threat to wildlife across the globe – and invasive, predatory mammals are particularly damaging.

Our research, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that these predators – cats, rats and foxes, but also house mice, possums and many others – have contributed to around 60% of bird, mammal and reptile extinctions. The worst offenders are feral cats, contributing to over 60 extinctions.

So how can we stop these mammals eating away at our threatened wildlife?

Counting the cost

Our study revealed that invasive predators are implicated in 87 bird, 45 mammal and 10 reptile extinctions — 58% of these groups’ contemporary extinctions worldwide.

Invasive predators also threaten 596 species classed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. Combined, the affected species include 400 birds, 189 mammals and 149 reptiles.

Twenty-three of the critically endangered species are classed as “possibly extinct”, so the number of extinctions above is likely to be an underestimate.

Until now, these shocking statistics have been unknown, and the heavy toll of invasive predators on native biodiversity grossly underappreciated. Species extinctions attributed to invasive predators include the Hawaiian rail (Zapornia sandwichensis) and Australia’s lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura).

Australia’s lesser bilby, now extinct.

Who are the worst offenders?

We found that three canids (including the red fox and feral dogs), seven members of the weasel family or mustelids (such as stoats), five rodents, two primates, two mongooses, two marsupials and nine species from other families negatively impact threatened species. Some of these species, such as hedgehogs and brushtail possums, don’t immediately spring to mind as predators, yet they are known to prey on many threatened species.

Feral cats threaten the most species overall (430), including 63 that have become extinct. This equates to one-quarter of all bird, mammal and reptile extinctions – making the feral cat arguably the most damaging invasive species for animal biodiversity worldwide.

Five species of introduced rodent collectively threaten 420 species, including 75 extinctions. While we didn’t separate out the impacts of individual rodent species, previous work shows that black rats (Rattus rattus) threaten the greatest number of species, followed by brown rats (R. norvegicus) and Pacific rats (R. exulans).

The humble house mouse (Mus musculus) is another interesting case. Despite their small size, house mice have been recorded eating live chicks of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters.

Other predators that threaten large numbers of species are the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), pig (Sus scrofa), small Indian mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and stoat (Mustela erminea).

Invasive mammalian predators (clockwise from top left): feral dog, house mouse, stoat, feral pig, feral cat, brushtail possum, black rat, small Indian mongoose and red fox (centre).
Clockwise from top-left: Andrey flickr CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4M2E7y; Richard Adams flickr CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/7U19v9; Mark Kilner flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4D6LPe; CSIRO CC BY 3.0 http://www.scienceimage.csiro.au/image/1515; T. Doherty; Toby Hudson CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrushtailPossum.jpg; CSIRO CC BY 3.0 http://www.scienceimage.csiro.au/image/10564; J.M.Garg CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herpestes_edwardsii_at_Hyderaba.jpg; Harley Kingston CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/ceWFr7 (centre).

Island species most at risk

Species found only on islands (insular endemics) account for 81% of the threatened species at risk from predators.

The isolation of many islands and a lack of natural predators mean that insular species are often naive about new predators and lack appropriate defensive responses. This makes them highly vulnerable to being eaten and in turn suffering rapid population decline or, worse, extinction. The high extinction rates of ground-dwelling birds in Hawaii and New Zealand — both of which lack native mammalian predators — are well-known examples.

Accordingly, the regions where the predators threatened the greatest number of species were all dominated by islands – Central America and the Caribbean, islands of the Pacific, the Madagascar region, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Conversely, the continental regions of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia contain comparatively few species threatened by invasive predators. While Australia is a continent, it is also an island, where large numbers of native birds and mammals are threatened by cats and foxes.

Along with feral cats, red foxes have devastated native mammals in Australia. Tom Rayner

Managing menacing mammals

Understanding and mitigating the impact of invasive mammal predators is essential for reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

Because most of the threatened species studied here live on islands, managing invasive predators on islands should be a global conservation priority. Invasive predators occur on hundreds of islands and predator control and eradication are costly exercises. Thus, it is important to prioritise island eradications based on feasibility, cost, likelihood of success and potential benefits.

On continents or large islands where eradications are difficult, other approaches are needed. This includes predator-proof fencing, top-predator restoration and conservation, lethal control, and maintenance of habitat structure.

Despite the shocking statistics we have revealed, there remain many unknowns. For example, only around 40% of reptile species have been assessed for the Red List, compared to 99% for birds and mammals. Very little is known about the impact of invasive predators on invertebrate species.

We expect that the number of species affected by invasive predators will climb as more knowledge becomes available.


This article was co-authored by Al Glen from Landcare Research, New Zealand.

The ConversationTim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Lecturer in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Feral feast: cats kill hundreds of Australian animals

The Conversation

By Tim Doherty

Feral cats are estimated to eat tens of millions of native animals each night in Australia. But what kinds of wildlife are they eating? In research published today in the Journal of Biogeography, my colleagues and I show that cats kill hundreds of different kinds of animals, including at least 16 species considered globally threatened.

Feral cats are a serious threat to wildlife globally, contributing to the extinction of numerous birds, mammals and reptiles worldwide. In Australia, cats have been implicated in the extinction of at least 20 mammal species and sub-species, including the lesser bilby and desert bandicoot.

Cats are widespread across the country, so it’s likely that their diet varies according to the local environment and fauna community – which might be affected by many factors, such as the amount of rainfall that an area receives or the native plant life.

Knowing what cats eat can help us decide how best to manage them.

Feline feast

What we found supports earlier research – the feral cat is an opportunistic predator – a generalist carnivore that eats a wide range of wildlife across Australia.

A feral cat degustation.
Tim Doherty, Author provided

Feral cats help themselves to a phenomenal number of species in Australia – 400 different vertebrates. This includes 123 bird species, 157 reptiles, 58 marsupials, 27 rodents, 21 frogs and nine exotic medium- and large-sized mammals. This is more than double the 179 species of animals that cats have been recorded eating on other islands worldwide.

However, this list only includes those species that have been recorded in diet studies, so it’s likely that there are many other species of native animals that cats kill and eat, that we just don’t know about yet.

Feral cats also eat many threatened species in Australia, and have been implicated in the decline of many species including the bilby, numbat, and western ground parrot.

We found that cats kill at least 16 globally threatened species and 12 others classed as near-threatened. This include mammals like the critically endangered mountain pygmy-possum and the brush-tailed bettong (woylie); the endangered northern quoll; as well as the critically endangered Christmas Island whiptail-skink and the vulnerable malleefowl.

Feral cats prey on the endangered northern quoll.
University of Technology Sydney/AAP

Desert desserts

What feral cats eat varies depending on where they are.

In our study, cats ate rodents most often in Australia’s tropical north. They ate medium-sized mammals, such as possums and bandicoots, most frequently in the south-east of the country. Still, cats ate rodents three times more often than other small, carnivorous mammals known as dasyurids (like dunnarts for example).

Cats also ate many mammals from a group that has suffered severe declines and extinctions over the past 200 years. These are known as “critical weight range” mammals, and weigh between 0.35 and 5.5 kilograms. Unfortunately, these mammals make suitable sized prey for many predatory species such as the feral cat and the introduced red fox.

What cats eat also depends on the amount of rainfall an area receives. Cats fed on reptiles most frequently in the central deserts, where rainfall is lowest. These deserts are also the most reptile-rich part of Australia (and the world).

Cats commonly feed on another widespread pest species: rabbits. Where cats ate fewer rabbits, the frequency of small mammals (rodents and dasyurids) in their diet increased. In Australia’s tropical north where rabbits are mostly absent, cats ate the highest frequency of rodents and dasyurids of anywhere in the country.

Rabbits are a major food source for feral cats.
Eddy Van 3000, CC BY-SA

This has important implications for how we manage pest animals. If rabbits are culled from an area, but cats aren’t controlled at the same time, then cats might switch prey and eat more small native mammals.

Past experience tells us how these programs can go awry. For example, when feral cats were eradicated from Macquarie Island in 2000, rabbit numbers exploded because the cats had kept the rabbits in check. Rabbits caused severe damage to the island’s native vegetation before being eradicated themselves in 2014. This suggests that a multi-species approach should be adopted for pest animal control.

Cat control

Large-scale control of feral cats is very difficult, particularly on the mainland, although some programs have been successful on islands. The use of poison baits can reduce cat density, but even low levels of cat predation can exterminate threatened mammal populations, such as when cats killed at least seven bilbies reintroduced outside the Arid Recovery reserve in South Australia.

Predator-free islands and fenced reserves on the mainland are the most effective short-term protection for our threatened mammals. However, fences that exclude predators are very expensive to build, and they require constant monitoring, maintenance and funding.

Non-lethal methods have traditionally been overlooked in the fight against invasive predators, such as the feral cat. However, new research suggests that smart fire and grazing management can help preserve the natural shelters that provide native animals with refuge from predators.

Reducing the impact of feral cats on our native animals is a challenging endeavour, but it is essential in the fight to conserve our unique fauna.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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