Monday, August 29, 2011

The Problem with Feral Cats....

Feral and/or stray cats abound around our new rural home.  I'd gotten pictures of them in the woods behind our house on several occassions, but didn't realize the level of the "problem" until I put a cam along the back of our garage facing an Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) burrow.  Although I thought it was a tad too soon, I checked the camera after 24 hours to see if the angle I used was good.

I was shocked too see how many times a puddy tat passed in front of the camera during that time.  Four different individuals (mugshots below), passed the camera a total of seven times within 24 hours.

They are obviously interested in the Chipmunk burrow as well....I've gotten pics of other rodents scampering around in this spot too, so it's a kitty buffet trail.

The worst part is that I only one of these individuals is one that I've caught pictures of before.  I now believe I have observed a total of SIX different individuals slinking around the property.

The last kitty kat pictured above has been camera-trapped in several different locations near our house.  In one case, the pictures of him depicted dastardly activities (see below)!


Some folks are shocked when I tell them that I am a wildlife conservation biologist, and that I could care less about protecting stray or feral cats...or even protecting pet cats allowed to run loose.  They seem to think that because I like "animals", I also like feral stray cats.

However, "Wildlife" and "Domestic Animals" or "Feral Domestic Animals" are very different things.  There is nothing "natural" about a feral or stray cat on the loose.  There is also nothing natural about a domestic cat that is allowed by its owners to come and go as it pleases.  They are not native wildlife.  They are an introduced exotic species. As such, in my humble opinion, they have no business loose on the landscape.

We have a number of native wild Felids in North America.  Several once had fairly extensive ranges in the US: the Bobcat (Lynx rufus) and the Cougar (Puma concolor).  The others had historic ranges that barely entered U.S. borders to the south, such as the Jaguar (Panthera onca; which once had a somewhat extensive range in the southwestern US), the Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and the Jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi).  To the north, the Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis) had a range that once included a fair portion of the northern U.S..

Most of these wild felids have been extirpated from the U.S., or had their ranges and populations drastically decreased in the last 100 years.  The Bobcat still has a fairly extensive range compared to the other species.  The Cougar is relatively common in the west, and expanding its range eastward (although east of the Mississippi River it is still very uncommon or nonexistent).

So, we have native cats that could actually use protection or conservation. Yet some folks will immediately jump on board with protecting feral cats as fast as they will native wildlife.  There are, in fact, entire organizations devoted to stray pet advocacy, and promote the trap-neuter-release policy for feral cats.  Alot of these folks may actually get down-right angry at any mention of actively controlling feral cat populations via lethal removal.  I often hear it implied that such activities are inhumane.  They seem to prefer the trap-neuter-release method of population control.  Granted, this may result in a decrease in feral cat populations over a longer time period (at least in areas where the method is rigorously practiced and upheld), but a neutered cat still needs to eat.  Trap-neuter-release doesn't make up for the fact that these feral neutered individuals must still hunt for the remainder of their lives. 

I'm also confused about how lethal removal of feral cats is viewed as inhumane, while granting these unnatural predators free reign to eat wildlife is not.

If we must protect feral cats, why not protect all feral animals?  Where are the feral hog advocacy groups?  Why not protect invasive species of snakes?  How 'bout some pro-zebra mussel propaganda?  I'll tell you why feral cats are treated differently: they're cute and make us think of our pets (or they actually are pets).  Who can identify with a giant bristling feral hog, with tusks like bananas tearing up native vegetation?  Who can identify with an exotic snake that eats something "desirable", like a bird (or a house cat)?  Thus, decisions about which side to be on are driven by emotion.

But, I digress.....

I had originally planned to review papers that have studied the impact of feral cats preying on native wildlife in this blog post.  Yet, I've found that this just results in a powder keg of constant squabbling by folks on both sides, so I decided to drop that.


At any length, I knew there were feral cats in the area after only two nights of camera trapping (see my previous post).  It only took another week to get pictures of them preying on wildlife.  I believe the prey in the pictures below is an Eastern Chipmunk.  We have several that run around the backyard caching food in various places.

Chipmunks are, obviously, not a rare species...but that is not the issue.  The problem is that, in less than a month, I have captured pictures of six different feral cats in the vicinity of our house.  Within the first week of us being here, I captured three cat pictures just off our back porch.  One of these was a photograph of a predation event. 

The numbers of predation events that go undetected are likely substantial.  All of these cats are going to eat somehow.

Further Reading (just a smattering from the diverse body of literature that exists on this subject).

Crooks and Soule, 1999. Mesopredator release and avifauna extinctions in a fragmented system. Nature 400:563-566.

Guttilla, G.A. and P. Stapp. 2010. Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildlife-urban interface. Journal of Mammalogy 91:482-489.

Foley, et al. 2005. Analysis of the impact of trap-neuter-return programs on populations of feral cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 227:1775-1781.

Hawkins, C.C., et al. 2004. Effects of house cats, being fed in parks, on California birds and rodents. Pgs. 164-170. In Shaw et al. (Eds.) Proceedings of the 4th International Urban Wildlife Symposium.

Lepczyk, C.A. et al. 2003. Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes. Biological Conservation 115:191-201.

Levy, J.K., et al. 2003. Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 222:42-46.

Nogales, M. et al. 2004. A review of feral cat eradication on islands. Conservation Biology 18:310-317.

Risbey, D.A. et al. 2005. The impact of cats and foxes on the small vertebrate fauna of Heirisson Prong, Western Australia. II. A field experiment. Wildlife Research 27:223-235.

The Wildlife Society. 2011. In Focus: the impacts of free-roaming cats (multiple entries by several authors).  The Wildlife Professional 5: 50-68.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Hunter in the Dark.

We've seen Gray Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) around the house on many occassions since arriving in the upper Midwest.

On our first day in the new place, I stepped out on the back porch to look at the air conditioning unit and saw one sitting on the deck.  I grabbed the little frog, and much to my daughter's delight, brought it in for her to see.

After that, encountering them became an almost daily occurrence.  Once, I opened the umbrella over our patio table and a little treefrog fell out.  On another occassion, I lifted up a watering can to find one of the little critters hiding beneath.  They also frequently end up on our sliding glass patio doors hunting insects at night.  On many nights, I've glanced over while banging away on the computer to see one of these little predators deftly ambushing moths that are attracted to the light shinning through.  They pay little attention to me, even when I stand and scrutinize them closely through the glass.  I vividly recall seeing them on the windows of my grandparents' house as a kid doing the exact same thing as I watch them doing now.  Perhaps I associate fond childhood memories with this species, which "ups the cool ante" on them. 

Even as I type this entry, I'm watching one maneuver his way around the transparent dinner table that is our patio door.  I've seen him miss one moth and nab another so far.  And all with the typical panache that this little amphibian exhudes every time I see one.  They seem to have personality to burn, if one were to anthropomorphize.

I know they must be generally successful at hunting around our place, for I frequently find their scat, filled with chitinous insect parts and stuck to the the walls and windows.  The numbers of insects one individual treefrog consumes in a summer must be substantial.

I'm thrilled to see this species.  It's one of my favorites.  I've posted about my encounters in North Carolina with a very closely related species: the Cope's Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis; see here and here). 

I hope they hang around my windows for many years to come.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ol' Bag O' Bones

This poor ol' critter has been hanging around one of my cameras back in North of the few that hasn't been stolen recently, that is   :(

Dave sends me updates now that I live in the upper Midwest, and this one came across today.

I'd seen this individual once before back in June and it was skinny then too.  I've seen some other skinny deer this year, but they were nursing does. 

No fawns hanging around this one.

Just a sorry looking deer.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Raccoon Denied of His Prize?

Allow me to take you back in time and also whisk you away from the upper Midwest to the Southeastern USA.

Some great pics I got on the Cuddeback in late June, 2011 in North Carolina.  

Nothing like a little herpetological bycatch on a camera trap.  Especially when the amphibian and/or reptile being photographed isn't ending up as lunch.

At the camera set I had monitoring the whistlepig burrow....we get a lot of Raccoon (Procyon lotor) activity.  Some are big, fat looking boars...but we also see many-a skinny little 'coon running running past the camera.  The critter pictured below looked like the latter to me.

Maybe it was due to lean times, but whatever the reason, the raccoon below tries to have an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) for dinner. the raccoon denied of his prize in this case?

It would appear so.

I guess those shells with the flexible hinge on the plastron work!

Notes on Box Turtle Predators

According to information summarized by Dodd (2001) a variety of predators threaten box turtles.  Although birds (e.g., herons, crows, etc.) and reptiles (copperheads, cottonmouths, etc.) eat many, medium-sized mammalian carnivores are a common box turtle predator.  Raccoons, Oppossums, Skunks, Minks, Coyotes, and domestic dogs (to name a few) will, apparently, partake of a box turtle snack.  The vast majority of this predation, however, is on eggs... but also juveniles, whose shells are not as hard as adults.  Raccoons and Oppossums, in particular, are known to have devastating effects on turtle eggs in areas where individuals communally nest (i.e. many turtles come together to lay eggs).  I have personally witnessed what can only be described as all out carnage, where aquatic turtles along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin have come up to nest only to have mammalian predators excavate and eat their eggs.  I vividly remember walking a small stretch of sandy bank one day looking for nesting turtles.  I found only destroyed nests.  Then it dawned on me that I should actually count the number of destroyed nests I encountered.  In a half hour, I counted 40 and gave up out of mild depression. 

Yet, it seems that these small carnivores have a tougher time breaching the sealed shell of an adult box turtle....or at least they quickly give up for something easier.  Yet, if the carnivore can catch the turtle before it withdraws its head, it may be able to deliver a fatal bite before the turtle seals itself shut and get a meal.  This happens more than one would think, and box turtles with missing limbs (presumably due to a circumstance such as the one I just described) are a common occurrence.

I don't fault Raccoons or Oppossums for destroying these nests.  Critters need to survive and Raccoons are good at it.  I can't help but respect any species that can thrive in this anthropogenically altered landscape.

I just wish they didn't eat turtle eggs!!

Literature Cited:

Dodd, Jr., C.K., 2001. North American Box Turtles: a natural history.  University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mother-grabbing CAMERA THIEVES!

I'm almost out of the camera trapping business.

It's just too damn expensive.

Dave called me from North Carolina this morning to tell me that a camera from a completey different project than the one we had cameras stolen from not two week ago (see here) got jacked!

That's four cameras in just about two weeks.

Like the others that were stolen, this camera was padlocked in a metal security box, and lag-screwed to a tree.

This time, however, the thieves must have yanked it off of the tree.  Dave found only one lag screw still imbedded in the tree when he went to service the cams this morning.  The hole where the screws went through the security box must have been rusty enough for them to pull the screw-head through.  Perhaps this gave them just enough purchase to somehow cut through the other lag screw (?).

Not sure how they are going to get the padlock off.  I hope they break the camera in the process, or give themself a gash that opens a major artery while doing so (I don't hope they die, mind you....but I wouldn't mind them being bed-ridden for a time).

I just don't get it.  I'm at a loss. What's wrong with people?

Another ongoing research project ruined and forced into early retirement.

I'd like to hold it together but I can't any longer.....

SUNOVA @*)$Y!&!#)@!@##)(*@$!#_(*@#$)@$@_!_!($@(*$@(*&$@(^!#)(*&!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Quickie Post from the Upper Midwest

Hey All!

I thank all of you who left well-wishes regarding our massive move last week.  Much appreciated.

Things have been crazy.  Moving across country (with a three year old and a 100 lb dog) is no picnic.  Then there's the unpacking, organizing, cleaning of one's new place. 

The house we are living in is nothing fancy, but it suits our modest needs.  Yet the back yard butts up against about 20 acres of woodland in a rural setting, with agricultural fields on either side.  To the east is an old farm house and barn.  The owner doesn't live there, and I guess its just a hobby farm for him.  So basically, no neighbors....which is important because I am a massive misanthrope ;)

The bottom line: its semi-secluded, rural, but still close to work.  Perfect.

Anyways, because of all the craziness in our lives....I have barely had time to even set foot in the nearby woodland yet.  However, as we finished up our cleaning and unpacking one day, I snuck out at dusk and put a camera in the woods at a spot where several trails intersect.  There are a few rows of mature pine trees to one side of the main trail, and wild woodland to the other.  I saw some fresh deer scat nearby and although I don't usually target deer with my camera sets, it was indicative of wildlife activity and the best I could do in a pinch.

Two days later, I was pretty happy.  The pics, much like our abode, were nothing fancy....but it gave me hope of good things to come. big shocker....a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

Next....a puddy tat. 

Also not a shock given the old farm next door.  Who knows how many of these nasty feral little buggers are wandering in the woods out back.

Finally...and what I thought was pretty cool...a striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).  In two years of intense camera trapping at several locations in NC, I only caught one.  They are more common up here, so this isn't a rare find, but it still felt like a personal achievement!

That's all for now.  I noticed alittle eastern chipmunk with full cheeks trying to cache food under our deck a few days back.  Tried to get some pics of him, but without success so far.

More in the future....but who knows when I'll get to it!