Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Now for something completely different, concerning our food supply.

Most of us today live in cities, completely artificial surroundings, with no more view of nature than a strip of lawn, a potted plant, or maybe a small pet.  We occasionally go to parks, more rarely to public gardens or zoos.  It’s easy to forget our place in the ecosystem that keeps us alive, and it’s easier to forget the function of various animals in that system.

Those of us who still live in the country, on working farms, have a better sense of the realities of nature.  We know that evolution never stopped, and “survival of the fittest” is still the name of the game.  We know about predators, parasites and plagues – animal, plant and microbe.  We also know about our symbiotes and allies.  We know why there are certain domestic animals that we raise and care for, but do not eat.          

Certain ornamental fish, small birds and small rodents – like hamsters and gerbils – we keep purely as pets, but others we keep because they perform vital work for us.  They help keep us alive, and we must never forget it. 

There are just 9 kinds of animals in the world that can be trained to carry burdens or pull loads for us:  elephants, horses, donkeys, camels, llamas, oxen, large goats, reindeer and large dogs.  Despite the easy availability of machines, these animals are still valued for their work in particular circumstances, especially since many of these animals can be used to grow their own fuel.  There’s an old saying among small farmers: “Farm with horses, and keep more of what you make.”  And ask any Alaskan if sled-dogs are more useful than snowmobiles. 

Dogs also perform many other tasks for us: hunters, guards, guides, and even health-alarms.  Cart-trained goats can also give milk.  Other domestic – or even semi-domestic – animals perform vital services that are harder to see.  Small birds, even wild ones, devour insects and worms which would otherwise harm us or our crops, and some of them – like hummingbirds – pollinate many of our crops, especially fruit-plants;  this is why we make the effort to put out food, water, and shelters for them.  Bees do more than produce honey;  they pollinate most of our food-plants, especially grains, and also protect their territories against invading insects and animals. 

There’s one creature which most people have forgotten is a working animal, think of only as a useless pet, and that is a serious mistake.

That animal is the cat – the common house-cat – and it protects us more than we know.

Think:  the most common, numerous, fertile, and invasive land-mammals on Earth are the Rodents – rats, mice, moles, gophers, ground-squirrels, tree-squirrels, and more.  Most of them eat the same food-plants that we do, and a few of them – like the rat – eat meat, too.   Rats, in particular, are quite willing to eat us if they can. 

The damage rodents do to humans is incredible. The most numerous and invasive species of land-mammal on the planet is the common or house mouse, and the runner-up, by a whisker, is the common rat.  Rats and mice annually destroy 20% of the world’s human food supply, according to the UN – and that’s not counting the damage done by rodents to crops in the field.  That’s also not counting the dozens of rodent-borne diseases – like the Black Plague – that can jump to other species and infect humans.

In the wild, rodents are preyed on by snakes, raptor-birds, bears, weasels, wolves, foxes, coyotes, wild dogs, and especially by the dozens of species of small wild cats.  In human territories such as farms, towns and cities, the only rodent-predators found in any large numbers are domestic (or stray) dogs and cats – and cats are more efficient at it.  House-cats are also much more likely to hang around human habitations rather than wander off into the wild. 

Despite wildly inaccurate claims by admitted cat-haters,* there is no way to tell how many cats there are in the US alone, and likewise no way to tell how many rodents they kill, but we know that there is no shortage of rodents.  We know that communities which restrict the numbers of outdoor cats and dogs tend to suffer from amazing plagues of mice and rats (see “mouse plague”, South Australia and Apopka, Florida, and see also “rat plagues”).  People who earnestly tell you that we have an “overpopulation of cats and dogs” have really no evidence for this except the abundance of stray animals in shelters.  The best solution to that problem is to spay/neuter the strays, try to find homes for them, and if nobody takes them, turn them loose again – hopefully to find their own homes.  You can never tell when a “stray” is actually somebody’s lost pet. 

We can also tell from direct observation, despite the claims of cat-haters and the ignorant, that house-cats very rarely kill birds.  Think: birds small enough for a cat to tackle have faster reactions than cats, can see 300 degrees around them, and can fly.  Only a very sick or injured bird would move slowly enough for a cat to catch.  As for the idea that cats climb trees to get at nests, recall that birds form breeding pairs who stick together to feed and protect their young;  two birds, who can fly, are more than a match for a cat, who must climb – and can’t go further than a branch that will hold his weight.  If anything, the climbing – “roof”, “wharf”, or “ship” – rat has a better chance to steal birds’ eggs than the cat does.  Direct observations by amateur birdwatchers and professional biologists reveal that the biggest predator of birds is… other birds: eagles, hawks, owls, and ravens.  The cat doesn’t even come close.

No, the major prey of small cats is small rodents – and it was from the beginning.  When humans learned how to farm and store food, around the eastern Mediterranean Sea and eastward into Asia, the rodents – particularly rats and mice – saw that they had an easy smorgasbord with humans.  One reason that humans developed pottery, besides carrying water, was to secure their food against rodents – particularly rats and mice – who could gnaw through anything softer.  Rats and mice, in particular, took to hanging around human habitats, waiting for their chance to steal food that humans provided.  Their presence, in turn, provided a feast for the various breeds of Felis Sylvestris – the native wild cat of Africa, Europe, and southern Asia.  

This is how the ancestors of the modern house-cat began hanging around with humans.  Humans soon noted that when the cats moved in the rats and mice thinned out, so they began providing regular favorite foods – tender meat, milk, later cheese – and shelter, to entice the cats to stay.  The cats accepted the deal, and it has lasted to this day.

Neither the arrangement nor the cat has changed much in thousands of years.  Domestic cats – Felis Cattus – are still capable of interbreeding with wild cats, and their offspring are fertile.  The house-cat still preys primarily on rats and mice, with occasional side-dishes of whatever other small rodents, reptiles, or fish it can catch – and whatever it can charm, demand, forage or steal from humans.  Whether as an only-occasionally-hunting pet, a busy farm-cat, or a feral full-time hunter, the cat still destroys the pests that destroy our food.

The cat is a vitally important working animal, whether ignorant cat-haters realize it or not.        

This is why fools who want to exterminate cats – and dogs – need to be recognized as domestic terrorists, and treated accordingly.

--Leslie Fish  <;)))><       



Paradoctor said...

The cat is a remarkable success story. It has spread from Central Asia to all over the world. I admire their courage in adopting us giant magical apes.

Leslie Fish said...

I'm amazed at their genetic flexibility. Did you know that it's possible for house-cats to interbreed with bobcats and lynxes, and get fertile offspring?

Eric Wilner said...

I'm not so sure about that interbreeding-with-bobcats thing; I did a little digging a few years ago, after seeing what I thought was a hybrid (it turned out to be a bobcat stunted by some obscure disease), and it seemed that there had been many claims of hybrids (some offered for sale), but none verified by DNA testing.
On the bird front... my cats often go galumphing after birds, which flutter off and laugh at them. But the young little cat that's lately been hanging out with my father has started bringing him gifts; in the last week, she's shown up with one hummingbird (still alive, as I heard it) and one wren (quite dead).
I agree, though, that other birds are more of a menace. Didn't realize until recently that yer basic bluejay will happily catch and eat any unwary finch it encounters.

Paradoctor said...

Cats have been blamed for extinctions on islands; but so have rats, and sometimes the humans trade one problem for the other. On the mainland cats are not blamed for extinctions, but I suspect that they're hastening the evolution of wildlife, as are we.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Eric. You say the young little cat brought in a *live hummingbird*?! All I can think is that the hummingbird must have been seriously sick. Really, I've never seen or heard of a cat catching a hummingbird that wasn't really ill. And the wren could have been the same. You might tell your dad to take the next bird the cat brings in to a veterinarian for examination. There could be a dangerous bird-plague in your neighborhood. Oh, and be sure to pet and praise the cat for bringing the birds to human attention. I'm not kidding.

Hi, Nat. Remember that in Nature small cats have no great advantage; they're prey to bigger predators, including large snakes and raptor-birds, as well as the usual round of diseases. As "invasive species", cats are way behind mice and rats, and even goats and pigs.

Seriously, one reason for the drop in hunting licenses over the past 10 years (which the anti-gun crowd erroneously crows about) is that feral hogs have become a plague all across the southern US as far west as the west-Texas deserts (they haven't gotten into the true deserts of New Mexico and Arizona because there's a kind of native pig, the Javelina, there ahead of them). The hogs have become such a plague that those states *don't require a hunting license to hunt them*, and they can be hunted at any time of the year. That's what a lot of hunters go after, all year around. If they can't eat the meat (which is questionable anyway, since a lot of states put out poison for the hogs), they can at least take the skins. Pigskin makes very good leather, if tanned right, and brings good prices.

Paradoctor said...

Cats are both predator and prey; thus their aggressiveness plus shyness.

This dual role reminds me of my time in grad school, as both teaching assistant and graduate student. At the time I thought that studying metamathematics was my real work, and helping undergrads do their algebra homework was make-work. Then I graduated and learned that it was the other way around.

If cats, rats, and goats are invasive, then we are even more so. So for humans to call other species invasive is hypocritical folly worthy of an Underfable. Hmm...

Eric Wilner said...

Update on the birds in my father's garden:
The birds generally seem fine. But! There's a large area out back that's an ambush predator's delight. Lots of cover, and flowers that draw the hummingbirds down close to ground level right in among the hiding places.
So, probably a case of insufficiently cautious birds around an invisible (and very patient) cat.

Rez Zircon said...

We hear all the howling about how outdoor cats decimate songbirds... and yeah, they do catch some. But if you get rid of all the outdoor cats... pretty soon you have abundant rats, and while rats don't usually catch adult birds, they DO climb into nests and eat the eggs and fledglings. And pretty soon you have NO birds. I have personally seen this happen. Neighbor's dog killed all the feral cats; rats moved in and spawned like tribbles; small birds went from abundant to zero in less than two years. (We won't even discuss what this did to the flea population, but let's just say I had to dust my own bed every night, or wake up with welts.)

Meanwhile, in suburban areas with sufficient outdoor cats, you'll actually see far more songbirds than in rural areas with NO cats (which is typical, because the foxes, owls, and coyotes eat cats faster than they can reproduce. When I lived in the deep SoCal desert, I literally could not grow cats fast enough to keep up.) Why? Because other than rats (a non-issue if you have enough cats), those cats are the only significant urban and suburban predator for small birds, while in rural areas small birds are subject to predation by everything from weasels on up, most of which also climb into and destroy nests; never mind all the larger predatory birds that don't happen in urban areas.

And if well-meaning idiots don't *feed* feral cats, their numbers tend to be stable.

As to all the "crowded shelters" -- as of about 20 years ago, Los Angeles County Animal Control system had only 58 runs and about 50 cages TOTAL, for the entire county (which also contracted to multiple cities). Which works out to something like 1/10000 of a percent of the total pets -- and doesn't even handle the ordinary escape artists. They've since built a couple new facilities (one at a cost of over $1M per kennel!), still hardly a drop in the bucket compared to tens of millions of pets. But it sure looks good in a photo op when you want to complain about "pet overpopulation" and pass restrictive laws that impact animal owners.

As to hummingbirds, they're insanely bold. I've had 'em perch on the bill of my cap numerous times -- when I'm walking around doing stuff, not just standing still. I'm not sure they even *notice* predators; they sure can't seem to tell people from trees.