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Susan Willson and The Gorilla. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Susan Willson and The Gorilla. Photo: Zach Hirsch

Cat collar scholar: SLU biologist examines a new way to curb songbird mortality

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Right now in the Canton-Potsdam area, there are about 50 people dressing their cats in technicolored, fluffy, Elizabethan collars. But they're not doing this because they think it's cute, or because they're making the next viral cat video.

The pets and their owners are part of a new study that has big implications for cats and their prey. Zach Hirsch has more.

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Esther Oey and her cat, Erin. Photo: Zach Hirsch

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Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

Susan Willson is a biologist who specializes in birds. She’s a professor at St. Lawrence University. She’s also a cat lover.

"One of our cats, his name is The Gorilla."

But cats hunt birds, and they often do it for fun.

"He’s a professional killer. Gorilla? Gorilla, come here! He just kills them for fun. That’s the whole cat nature, which is awful. There’s not much eating going on, it’s just, 'I wanna kill everything.'"

A little over a year ago, The Gorilla was killing multiple songbirds per week, and she couldn’t let that slide. As a conservation biologist, Willson has the bigger picture in mind. In the United States, cats cause way more bird deaths than cars or windows. According to a recent study, they kill 1 to 4 billion birds a year.

"Billion, with a 'B.' That’s a massive, ridiculous amount of birds that are killed. We are seeing very steady, significant declines of songbirds across the board."

So Willson tried to find a way to curb The Gorilla’s recreational hunting. She put a bell on his collar, but that didn’t work. After extensive Googling, she finally came across Birdsbesafe. Birdsbesafe is the small company of Nancy Brennan in Vermont. Brennan sells brightly colored, puffy collars. They almost make cats look like they’re in a Renaissance fair.

"It’s amazing, that no one had thought of this before and she came up with the idea of this collar, that’s just this colorful cloth ruff. Birds see very well in ultraviolet and, you know the red-orange-yellow, especially. They have great vision.

"Since they see well, you can imagine my black cat, The Gorilla, creeping under a bush. If he has this thing around his neck, the birds will focus on the movement of that pattern, see it, and be alerted to it."

Willson fitted The Gorilla with a colorful collar, and almost overnight, he caught way fewer birds. She began to wonder: Is this collar the answer? 

She got a grant from St. Lawrence University to do the research. With the grant money, she bought the colorful collars for 60 cats, and distributed them to volunteers. The human participants in the study - the pet owners - agreed to collect and freeze any dead animal their cat brings home. That’s how she’ll measure her results.

"How did you get people to agree to harbor dead animals in the freezer?"

"It was, well it was very hard. I was a little worried about - my goal was 50 people. And I think, some people specifically didn’t join the study because they were like, 'Oh, that’s just too gross.' And it is. I’m saying like, 'Okay, if your cat throws up a mouse on your porch, I want it.'"

There’s still more than a month left in the study. It’s hard for Willson to know what the cats are doing when they’re on their own, but she already thinks the collars work. She’s heard lots of accounts from volunteers like Esther Oey. Oey’s cat, named Erin, used to be a fierce bird trapper.

"We’ve caught her several times with baby birds, especially. We can hear the squeaking and the squawking. Our resident cardinal pair, I think she got the female at one point.

"So, we did not find a single creature while she was wearing the collar. So this was great. I was very happy to see that Erin did not bring us a single dead animal during the first two weeks of the study!"

Erin the cat is now in the second two weeks of the study, when she is not supposed to wear the collar. That’s how Willson will measure whether wearing the collar actually saves birds.

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