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On Common Ground: The curious case of the young, injured dove

Early this year, the California Wildlife Center cared for and released this young dove which appeared to be attacked by a domestic cat in Malibu. Lorraine Barbosa/California Wildlife Center
Dr. Lorraine Barbosa DVM, MPVM, Staff Veterinarian, California Wildlife Center
12:00 am PST December 30, 2016

It is a warm May morning at California Wildlife Center and I am presented with a young dove in a small cardboard box. I first examine the baby bird from afar, noting that all of its tail feathers are missing. It is standing on its own, but too young to fly just yet. 

I take the small bird into my hands and begin to sift through her feathers, searching for any wounds or injuries. I check her back, then spread each of her wings. The bird peeps intermittently as I search, perhaps crying for its parents. As I check her front, I come across two puncture wounds along her neck. There are seeds caked at the open wounds and I immediately know her affliction. 

The puncture wounds are from the teeth of a cat that was seen “playing” with the bird when the Malibu rescuer found it. The wounds have gone not only through her skin, but have penetrated deep enough to tear her crop, a sac that extends from the esophagus in which food is stored prior to digestion. With a torn crop, a bird can still eat food, but much of the food spills from the crop through the puncture wounds, eventually leading to starvation, as well as infection from the wounds themselves. 

As a veterinarian, cat owner and wildlife enthusiast, it saddens me to know that this bird is only one example of what is actually a serious global issue. Research in Nature Communications and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that domestic cats are responsible for the deaths of between 1.3 billion–4 billion birds and 6.3 billion–22.3 billion mammals every year, including contributing to the extinction of numerous species.

The reason for such a wide range is that it’s extremely difficult to quantify exactly how many wild animals cats actually kill because, so often, it goes unseen. Although stray and feral cats are the worst culprits, pet cats still kill significant numbers of animals — in fact, most times many more than their owners realize. A fascinating study through the University of Georgia and National Geographic attached video cameras to 60 indoor/outdoor cats, and found that about a third of them killed wildlife. Even cats who never brought kills home were seen killing wildlife. And for those that did, the study found that they brought home less than a quarter of the animals they killed.

So, what can we do? Well, the best thing for wildlife is to keep cats indoors. This can also lead to a longer, healthier life for your cat. 

The next best thing if you feel your kitty simply must be let outside, is to bell your cat. A study in the Journal of Zoology demonstrated that a properly fitted (ideally quick-release) collar and bell can reduce a cat’s hunting success by about 50 percent, with the bell notifying the prey as the cat sets up its attack. 

If your cat has never worn a collar, a great way to get them started is gradually. Put the collar on initially for an hour or so per day, and while it’s on, keep them distracted with food, treats or play. As they get used to it, leave it on for longer and longer periods, and eventually they won’t even remember it’s there. 

Luckily for the little bird on my exam table, a life-saving surgery was performed to repair her wounds. While recovering, she was given the nutrition she needed to thrive and a warm, safe place to rest, regrow her feathers and learn to fly, before being released back into the wild.

On Common Ground is a new monthly column written by various California Wildlife Center employees. CWC, a nonprofit located in Calabasas, cares for injured wildlife in Malibu and beyond.