Cats, Coyotes and the Sixth Mass Extinction

This could seriously use a rewrite but I’ll post it as is for now . . . . When coyotes wiped out all the cats outdoors—strays and pets let outside alike—the number of bird species we’d see about tripled. You could even hear it in the variety of songs, even the motherfuckers with the vocal range of a smoke alarm who start their incessant idiot one note song about dawn. Anyway, the now long endemic local coyote population was a sad thing for the cats, but great for the local bird population. The rat and mouse population exploded without all the cats, but that brought in the owls (two or three different species) who were more effective at rodent extermination than the cats. Without the rodents and stray cat kittens, though, the hawk population has dropped, and they no longer land on our railing and stare into our living room, wondering if we have any small animals or babies in there.

I love cats, though. We’ve had I don’t know how many. But I can’t help seeing them as the perfect hunting machines that they are, as perfectly evolved as sharks are for hunting, and, like sharks, they’ve varied little over their millions of years from their fundamental design. There might not be any other mammal as perfectly designed for hunting as are cats. And they do it so easily. They can kill a dozen birds a night and have no idea the whole point was to eat the thing. Alas for housecats, the social structure and improvisational hunting skills of the coyote means housecats are easy meat, and coyotes don’t waste time playing with their catch, they eat them. But make a cat bigger than a coyote and it’s no contest. Coyotes don’t eat cougars, but are a regular feature on a cougar’s palate. Revenge. The natural world is kind of fucked and heartless when you think about it.

Cats are one of the drivers of the sixth mass extinction. Not the undomesticated species of wildcats, but felis catus, the house cat. We multiplied the population of one of the world’s most effective small hunters by hundreds of millions (worldwide there are over 200 million pet cats and about a half billion strays), and dropped them in places where often native cats never existed and they’ve decimated bird, small mammal and reptile populations often to the point of extinction. It’s not an even fight, and coyotes here in Southern California are about the only sure fire way to limit bird predation. Where coyotes go, bird populations follow. Cats, like rats, come with people and where they go species loss follows. Every time you see a new residential neighborhood in an undeveloped spot you have to figure that most of native birds in the area will be wiped out by cats in very short order. Sadly, the vast majority of birds killed by cats are never eaten. Eating a bird is a learned behavior, hunting is a built in skill. So coyotes are just sort of resetting the balance, wiping out introduced predators and letting the bird populations recover. A very rare reversal of the Sixth Mass Extinction.

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