BOOKS: The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life

The Domestic Cat:  Bird Killer,  Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life;  Means of Utilizing and Controlling It
by Edward Howe Forbush
Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture,  1916.   [Free 112-page download from <>.]

The November/December 2010 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE noted on page one that the American Bird Conservancy had on December 1,  2010 issued a media release extensively praising what publicist Robert Johns termed “a new peer-reviewed report titled, Feral Cats & Their Management from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,”  which advocated killing feral cats.

“The report began in an undergraduate wildlife management class,”  revealed Associated Press writer Margery A. Beck,  “with students writing reports on feral cats based on existing research.  The students’ professor and other UNL researchers then compiled the report from the students’ work.”

UNL faculty member Stephen Vantassel, listed as as a co-author,  told Beck that “the report was written for public consumption and wasn’t submitted to any science journal.”

ANIMAL PEOPLE lacked the time before going to press in December 2010 to confirm a hunch that Feral Cats & Their Management is little more than a paraphrased and condensed update of the 1916 tract The Domestic Cat:  Bird Killer,  Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life;  Means of Utilizing and Controlling It,  authored by then-Massachusetts state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush.  The Forbush tract furnished the “scientific” basis for more than half a century of concerted efforts by hunters and birders to add cats to state lists of legally hunted species.  In recent decades Forbush provided the template for the arguments of birders against the introduction of neuter/return feral cat control. Reprints of The Domestic Cat:  Bird Killer, Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life have appeared from antiquarian publishers at least twice in the past five years,  while the original is easily accessible online.

Downloading and re-reading The Domestic Cat:  Bird Killer,  Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life,  after Humane Society of the U.S. senior vice president Andrew Rowan forwarded the link, confirmed that the resemblance between the University of Nebraska paper and the Forbush work follow almost identical outlines from beginning to end,  making similar allegations,  arriving at the same recommendations in closely parallel language.

The major structural difference is that about half of the Forbush tract consisted of anecdotal testimony from more than 200 individual correspondents that cats kill birds.  Many of the letters that Forbush quoted came from hunters who were themselves shooting birds,  often of small species who are no longer legally hunted,  when they observed cats pursuing some of the same prey.

Feral Cats & Their Management includes no first-hand testimony.  The authors of Feral Cats & Their Management plugged inreferences to more recent studies than those Forbush cited,  but in support of essentially the same claims, including that cats devastate populations of birds who would otherwise be hunted.

The Feral Cats & Their Management authors do not appear to have paid a great deal of attention to context or accuracy.  Forbush by contrast presented enough context to discredit many of his own contentions.  Like the Feral Cats & Their Management authors,  for example, Forbush projected his estimates of cat predation on birds from outlandishly high claims about feline fecundity–but Forbush showed how he derived this numbers.  “Cats are known to have from two to four broods yearly,”  Forbush asserted,  “with from five to nine in each broodŠHence the necessity for checking such increase promptly by killing all superfluous kittens soon after birth.”

In actuality,  in Forbush’s time as now, standard references credited cats with raising at most two litters per year,  birthing five to nine kittens in total,  only about half of whom survive weaning.

Forbush lauded the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the American SPCA for killing tens of thousands of cats,  presenting their data, but said little about what the data actually showed.  The ASPCA,  for example,   killed 51,000 cats in a concerted effort to purge feral cats from “the tenement district on the east side” in 1911.  This did not succeed.  Except in 1911, the Animal Rescue League and ASPCA numbers appeared to reflect relatively stable cat populations,  which might even have been in decline as the advent of the automobile reduced the numbers of stables–and rodent and cat habitat –in their respective cities.
“Dr. Frank M. Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History believes that there are not less than 25,000,000 cats in the United States,”  Forbush noted.  This number is credible,  coinciding reasonably well with the findings of National Family Opinion founders Howard and Clara Trumbull in studies done in 1927,  1937,  and 1947-1950,  which they published under the pseudonym John Marbanks.

Also credible was Forbush’s own observation that free-roaming cats kill on average about 10 birds per year.  Parallel to this,  Forbush offered data collected by Walt F. McMahon,  a colleague whose focus was on discovering more efficient ways to exterminate cats.  McMahon found in 1914 that among 559 cats kept by 271 people in seven eastern Massachusetts cities,  229 were known to sometimes kill birds. Among those cats,  47 were known to have killed 534 birds in the preceding year:  11.3 apiece. All but disregarding his own data,  however,  and the greater part of McMahon’s data,  Forbush dwelt on the claims of 15 people that their cats killed 20.4 birds per month,  and the claims of six people that their cats killed about 50 birds per year.

Context of the times

Much of Forbush’s antipathy toward cats might be ascribed to the context of the times. For example,  more than 50 years before the studies emerged that inspired Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring,  Forbush conducted a three-year study of the effects of pesticide spraying on birds.   But Forbush was handicapped by lack of knowledge about the sub-lethal neurological effects of pesticides,  and a lack of technology capable of detecting the very small amounts of pesticides that can induce neurological harm.  Among 60 birds found dead under fruit trees that had been sprayed with lead arsenate,  “Traces of lead and arsenic were found in two only,”  Forbush wrote.  “Others met death in various ways,  such as flying against wires or buildings,”  which today would be recognized as probable effects of pesticide intoxication.  “One had been shot;  but 19 showed marks of the teeth and claws of cats,”  observed Forbush,  never considering that the mostly air-feeding insectivorous birds commonly found in orchards during spraying season might never have descended within reach of cats had their ability to fly not been impaired.

Born in 1858,  Forbush became curator of ornithology for the Worcester Natural History Society at age 16.  The Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture hired him in 1893 to identify whether bird species were good or bad for farmers.  He served as state ornithologist from 1908 until his death in 1929.  His life coincided with the era in which New England wildlife was more depleted than at any time since.  Logging, ploughing,  damming,  and unrestrained development depleted the forest cover,  the grasslands,  and the rivers.  Precocious as Forbush was in his birding,  which then was done chiefly with a shotgun,  predatory mammals, fur-bearers,  and most wild species considered edible had already been extirpated from most of Massachusetts before he had much chance to see or kill them.

The loss of native predators and fur-bearers enabled feral cats to expand into some habitat that they could no longer hold after the arrival of coyotes and the collapse of the market for trapped fox fur,  long after Forbush died.  But many of the accounts of alleged cat predation that Forbush quoted from his correspondents appear to describe instead the behavior of other species,  including pine marten,  also called “fisher cats,”   a remnant few of whom apparently persisted despite being so rare as to be misrecognized when seen.

Cats may hunt newly hatched chickens,  as Forbush charged,  but they do not kill them by the hundreds,  as some of his correspondents claimed,  if adult hens are present to defend the chicks.  Cats rarely kill full-grown poultry of any sort,  let alone make a living on turkeys, as one writer asserted.  Very few cats are in the 20-plus-pound size range that the purported chicken and turkey killers proved to be,  when shot or trapped;  but this is the normal size range of bobcats.

Forbush mentions claims that cats were often trapped in northern Maine and Quebec “even upward of 30 miles from any house or clearing.” This is possible,  but might more likely reflect a misunderstanding of the Quebecois idiom chat sauvage,  or “wild cat,”  most often used to mean “raccoon.”

Forbush and fellow ornithologists G. K. Noble  and Howard H. Cleaves in 1913-1914 failed to identify the behavior of herring gulls and black-backed gulls when they discovered the dismembered remains of hundreds of thousands of roseate terns on Muskeget Island,  off Nantucket. Egg hunting in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by plume hunting in the mid-19th century,  had pushed roseate terns to the brink of extinction,  but after a brief recovery in the early 20th century,  their numbers again crashed.

“There are no trees on the island,” Forbush wrote,  “therefore hawks and owls do not nest there,  and do not remain there during the nesting season of the birds.  There are no predatory mammals except the cat,  and the indigenous short-eared owl was exterminated years ago.  Therefore the cat is practically the only enemy with which the gulls and terns have to contend.”  That the gulls were killing the terns was belatedly recognized about 80 years later, by which time rosaete terns were again almost lost.  Both lethal and non-lethal gull control were introduced to nearby islands in 1998. Non-lethal gull control was extended to Muskeget in 2000.  The roseate tern population doubled in the next five years,  and is now higher than at any time since 1920.

“It is undeniable that the cat may be affected by certain diseases and that it may transmit some infections,  such as scarlet fever or smallpox,”  Forbush continued.  “But in the nature of the case much of the evidence is not such as would convince the bacteriologist,” meaning that it was not really plausible even given the limited understanding of disease transmission of that era.  “Nevertheless,” Forbush labored on,  “it will be conceded that as a carrier of disease,  especially to children, no animal has greater opportunities.”

His evidence consisted entirely of two articles by one Dr. Caroline A. Osborne,  who seems to have left little other trace of herself in medical history.  Osborne accused cats of infecting humans with bubonic plague,  whooping cough,  mumps,  and foot-and-mouth disease,  of which only bubonic plague even afflicts cats. Cats contract bubonic plague in the same manner as humans,  from yersina pestis bacteria carried by a flea whose natural hosts are rodents.

Forbush favored tracking and treeing cats with dogs before shooting them.  The University of Nebraska writers recommended against using dogs.  Otherwise,  their instructions for killing cats were essentially identical. Forbush sought “to eliminate the vagrant or feral cat as we would a wolf.”  By coincidence Feral Cats & Their Management co-author Scott E. Hygnstrom was thanked for advice by the editors of at least two recent texts describing wolf control methods. –Merritt Clifton


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