World Spay Day: How we can protect our wild birds by caring for our pets

February 28, 2017

By Natalia Wycislak

Guest blogger Natalia Wycislak is a pre-veterinary student at the University of Manitoba with a passion for wildlife. Her interest in boreal conservation was sparked by working and volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation centre near Winnipeg. She hopes to one day work in wildlife conservation as a veterinarian.

Happy World Spay Day! Taking the initiative to spay or neuter our pets has many potential benefits, including reducing the chance of health issues, curbing overpopulation of homeless animals, and even remedying behavioral problems, but why is CPAWS celebrating the health of your domestic animals?

With a focus on felines, spaying can reduce feral cat populations that would otherwise hunt staggering numbers of birds and other wildlife. It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 200,000 feral cats roaming Winnipeg streets, and there are about 10.2 million domesticated pet felines in Canada. Whether released to roam intentionally or by accident, cats left outside encounter dangers such as busy streets, unfriendly dogs, and dangerous animal traps, but it is often the cats themselves that pose a danger to wildlife. A study conducted in 2013 by Environment Canada shows that 270 million birds are being killed every year in Canada due to human activities, with 200 million of these deaths being caused by pet cats.

After working at a wildlife rehabilitation centre, I came to know firsthand how immense this problem is. During the summer it is almost a daily occurrence for cat owners to bring in cat-caught birds. We are able to treat and release many of these patients successfully, but others are not so fortunate.

Domestic cats hunt in extreme excess, often catching 10 to 12 birds in a night according to Environment Canada, and this causes much damage to bird populations and the health of the ecosystems that birds call home. There are more than 300 species of migratory birds that breed in the boreal, with about 3 billion individual birds migrating to Canada’s boreal in the spring to hatch and raise their young.For example, the majority of Lesser Yellowlegs populations overwinter in the South American country of Suriname, and fly over 7,000 kilometres back to the boreal to breed every spring.

Just as the birds need the boreal, the balance of this ecosystem is also aided by their presence. As pest controllers and seed dispersers, resident and migratory species that nest in the boreal are vital to the overall environment.

The Gray Jay, Stellar’s Jay, and other corvids have a habit of caching food such as seeds in the nooks and crannies of trees and rocks during the winter. Sometimes they are left until the spring and these once-dormant seeds have the opportunity to sprout into seedlings, creating new life in unexpected places. Seeds can also be dispersed over very large distances after being eaten by birds that expel the seeds as waste. To encourage this, plants may surround their seeds with tasty, nutritious fruit. The Cedar Waxwing is an excellent seed spreader and avid lover of fruits, including raspberries, juniper berries, crab apples, and honeysuckle berries.

There are many insect pests that, when ecological balance is disrupted, can proliferate and impact large areas of our boreal forests. In an outbreak, pest insects like the spruce budworm can kill or damage trees in large numbers by eating all available foliage, or burrowing into wood and bark. Insect eating birds such as the Evening Grosbeak play an important role in keeping pests like spruce budworm at levels that will allow the ecosystem to thrive.

Our complex and diverse boreal forests stay healthy when we recognize and support the intricate relationship between birds and this beautiful landscape. Birds play important roles in the boreal ecosystem and protection of the habitats they depend on is critical to ensuring their survival. Spaying or neutering our domestic cats and keeping them indoors helps to reduce feline overpopulation and ensures more birds can reach and thrive in the same habitats we are striving to protect.


Images from top: Outdoor cat (Oliver Schwendener); Common Goldeneye and ducklings (Ron Thiessen); Lesser yellowlegs (Ron Thiessen); Juniper berries (Josh Pearlman); Domestic cat (Chaiyaporn Atakampeewong)

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