June 18, 2018
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The column I’m scared to write: Dogs, cats, birds don’t mix

Bob Duchesne | Courtesy of Bob Duchesne
Bob Duchesne | Courtesy of Bob Duchesne
Killdeer are among the birds that can be put at risk by off-leash dogs.
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

I’m scared. I suppose every columnist is too frightened to tackle certain subjects, and that’s true even if the column is about a subject as innocuous as birding. So, with Halloween approaching, here are two topics that scare me too much to write about.

Cats. If you search the Bangor Daily News archives, you’ll find that BDN writer and blogger Emily Burnham brought an interesting factoid to the discussion in January. Maine is No. 2 in cat ownership per household, slightly behind Vermont. More than 46 percent of households in Maine have a cat according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. The same study revealed that pets are so important to people that 60 percent of respondents considered them to be part of the family.

So whenever somebody has the temerity to cite studies about how many birds are killed by outdoor cats each year, they are stoned in the public square by cat lovers. And that’s true even though mere minutes after the first study was made public, a second was released from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute revealing that cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds annually in the United States.

To be fair to outdoor pets, the majority of birds are dispatched by feral cats that owe allegiance to no human. Still, previous wisdom estimated that cats killed only about half a billion birds a year. When the new estimates revealed that the number was three to six times higher, even the researchers were astonished.

I am forced to sympathize with cat owners under threat of hypocrisy. In my adult life, I once shared a home with an outdoor cat who was such a marshmallow that I never once saw him take a bird. Still, as a concession to common sense, he and I had an understanding. If he heard me open the window while he was hiding under the bird feeder, he knew that he was about to get hosed with a squirt gun.

Nonetheless, once a pet cat is used to being outdoors, what owner could possibly curtail the privilege, especially when a scratched sofa and shredded drapes are the price to be paid?

Thus, I have made a bargain with myself. I will not — in fact, cannot — confine a cat that is accustomed to going outside. But should I ever share a home with another kitten, my cat will be an indoor cat and will never become the wiser.

Dogs. On July 15 this year, a dog killed a federally protected piping plover on Scarborough Beach. The dog acted so swiftly that its owner, who thought her pet was under voice control, had no time to react to the sudden impulse. The owner was never fined, but the city of Scarborough was. The city had been warned three times previously by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that its ordinance was too lax to protect a bird that is almost extinct in Maine. Only about 2,000 are thought to exist along the entire eastern coast of America.

Once again, I can only consider my own culpability. My dog “Schoodic” was the best dog in history.

He was gentle, playful, and loved water. To leash such a dog on a beach would be an abomination. I recall the time that I took him Down East about 20 years ago. It was August. The wrack line was awash in shorebirds. He had no intention of harming any shorebird, but he had the urge to greet them all. He repeatedly pranced amidst them. At one point, he discovered killdeer chicks and might have done harm had not the mother killdeer lured him off with that old broken wing trick. I recall being concerned at the time. I would have been crestfallen had I known the real damage being done.

It was just about that time that Maine researchers learned that shorebirds are gravely endangered by disturbance. In order to reach South America, they must feed on our mud flats and then rest quietly to store the fat as fuel for migration. If they are disturbed too much, they prematurely burn the fuel, later fall into the ocean, and die. Whole flocks die. That’s a bit much for my conscience. Henceforth, should I ever have another dog, I might consider taking him off leash on a beach, but not where shorebirds nest or in late summer when they are migrating.

Given how much people love their pets, I am too scared to write about all of this. Maybe someday.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.


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