Every year upwards of 25 million birds are killed in Canada due to collisions with buildings, communication towers, wind turbines, and as a result of being tangled into marine gillnets. From window decals to flashing lights, humans have tried numerous preventative measures to stop these deaths. Their degree of success depends on the method, the location, and the types of birds in that ecosystem—amongst many other factors—and results are highly variable.
What may seem like benign interventions that—at worst—just won’t work, actually have the capacity to do harm. As an example, In Peru, bycatch (i.e., accidental catch) of Guanay Cormorants was reduced more than 80% after researchers attached green lights to gillnets. At the same time, bycatch of Peruvian Boobies increased. Possibly due to the boobie’s attraction to the lights.
Similarly, when researchers set out to the Baltic sea to compare the effects of attaching light panels, constant green lights, or flashing white lights to gillnets on sea birds (in particular the Long-tailed duck, a vulnerable species) they found that the nets with flashing white lights caught more ducks than the normal, non-illuminated ones.
When non-native animals are introduced to an ecosystem, quite often, the very delicate balance of that environment is thrown off. Plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and everything else in a biome are connected through the food web, meaning that small changes to any part of a habitat can have extensive consequences.
From zebra mussels in Canada to grey squirrels in the United Kingdom, invasive animals have become a massive problem with increases in global travel and shipping. We enact biosecurity laws and protocols, quarantine procedures and mandate pesticide treatments to try to limit their spread; but despite all our efforts to curb invasive invasions, there is one species that we tend to give a pass to: cats.
Domestic cats are not native to anywhere. While they are descended from Felis lybica, the African Wildcat, the domestic cat is a different species. They are even given a separate Latin species name: Felis catus.
Even when well fed at home, domestic cats often engage in predation and hunting behaviours. With some variance depending on location, cats tend to kill more birds and small mammals than anything else. Since domestic cats are an introduced species, they have tremendous potential to upset intricate ecological situations.
Some researchers strongly believe that domestic cats’ damaging influence on the environment has already been robustly demonstrated. They feel it is crucial to act immediately and decisively if we want to have any hope of counteracting the damage done by domestic felines. For example, in 2018, conservationists from Oklahoma State University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute published a paper wherein they denounced what they described as organised misinformation campaigns spreading junk science about domestic cats’ effects on ecosystems.
They invoke the Merchants of Doubt moniker—the name given to the “cabal of industry-beholden” contrarian scientists who denied evidence of harm by tobacco smoking, DDT and climate change for financial gain—and liken outdoor cat advocates to “cigarette and climate-change fact fighters” pushing “propaganda.”
Conversely, other researchers feel that many conservation scientists are fueling an unwarranted moral panic over outdoor cats with exaggerated claims and inadequate evidence. In response to the 2018 Merchants of Doubt publication, researchers from six universities around the world collaborated on a rebuttal. They wrote that:
equating the resources and power of global corporations and economic elites (e.g., Exxon Mobil) with the reach and advocacy of comparatively small non-profit organizations and university academics strains the [Merchants of Doubt simile] past the breaking point.
The authors take issue with conservationists concluding that cat advocates are acting with nefarious or bad faith motives and feel that calls for things such as “remov[ing cats] — once and for all — from the landscape” by “any means necessary” are sensationalist and premature. Instead, they call for better research to investigate the severity of the risks cats pose to habitats and the appropriate levels of interventions, and humane but effective alternatives to simply killing and banning outdoor cats.
A White-Hot Issue
If you’re not that familiar with the literary style research papers are usually written in, let me just say, it’s not usually quite like this. Usually, one side of an academic debate is not accusing the other of being corporate shills. The vast majority of the time, there are no mentions of “zombie apocalypse[s]” or calls to let things “weigh heavy on our shoulders.”
The rhetoric throughout the literature on outdoor cats is very inflammatory. The cats/birds issue isn’t just a problem to be solved. It is a fight; a conflict; a war. Solutions to this situation are needed urgently. Danger is imminent. “Drastic times call for drastic measures.” People “must ask themselves which animals should be saved but do so quickly because there is no time to [do both]… before extinctions occur”.
Clearly, the environmental impact of cats on birds, and the welfare of cats, are contentious and emotionally charged topics. It makes a lot of sense that they are. Environmental stewardship is an important role that humans are morally obligated to fulfill. Especially in the face of an existential threat. At the same time, cats also represent life that should be protected. Cats long ago transcended their status of just-another-animal. From their initial roles of pest control, they have become members of the family. Given as much, cat owners often take advice regarding their pets personally.
The thing is, this highly polarised landscape filled with provocative language and antagonistic interactions isn’t helping either side. And it isn’t helping the birds, or the cats, either.
Whether cats impact wildlife in a meaningful and long-lasting way is a question for the experts in this field. They do not seem to agree, which implies the need for more research on the matter. Either way, it doesn’t particularly matter who is “right” anymore.
What matters is how needlessly divided the debate has become.
A Birdy Binary
A false dichotomy has been created wherein one can either care about native wildlife or feline welfare, but never both. Either cats are the enemies — the representations of humans’ entitlement and disdain for the earth — or the most perfect companions, too often neglected and maligned, who are just following their natural instincts.
We do ourselves a massive disservice by reducing this complex and multifaceted issue to one side versus another, or ‘us versus them’. People are lumped into supposedly either loving birds and hating cats or vice-versa, when in truth, most conservationists and pet owners are motivated by similar loves of nature, flora, and fauna.
This artificial divide encourages more polarising solutions, more extreme takes and leads to fearmongering and moral panics. It not only creates this illusion of a lack of a middle ground, it eliminates any of the methods or solutions that would originate from there.
We can become so hyper-focused on advocating for one position that we become blinded to other parts of the issue. Habitat loss is displacing bird populations and climate change is affecting their ability to find food and water. As cities sprawl outward, they remove homelands for birds and disrupt migration routes. In Canada, around 100 million birds are estimated to die every year due to collisions with buildings, power lines and cars.
Such black-and-white thinking discourages the peer review process. With little room for nuance, any criticism of a study’s methods can be seen as dissent. Scientists need to feel free to question how research is performed and how it draws its conclusions without fear of being labelled as agents of misinformation.
It’s Getting Mean in Here
Outside of academic discussions, the binary division between perceived “bird lovers/cat haters” and “cat lovers/bird haters” is even wider. This pattern is seen to varying levels across social media, traditional media, and interpersonal relationships. Expressing the wrong opinion on Twitter about indoor/outdoor cats can lead to harassment and ostracisation.
We should all know that an anecdote is not good evidence for anything on its own. Nonetheless, let me tell you a short one.
I have written on a variety of “controversial” topics in the past — menstruation, copycat suicides, female ejaculation, transgender children, border walls — but only once have I been kicked out of a science-themed social media group. I was removed after sharing my (then) most recent article on whether bells on cat collars work to reduce the amount of prey that domestic cats kill. For the record, three studies (one published in 2005, one in 2006, and one in 2010) have shown that cats brought home less prey when they wore bells. But very quickly, the thread of responses devolved into name calling and insinuations of nefarious or financially motivated intentions.
Empathy works, not… whatever that is
What should be a logical debate on policies and practices has turned ugly. The cats and birds issue has become a hotbed for sensationalism and hyperbole, no matter your stance. And the worst part about it is that we know it won’t work as well as collaborative and kind approaches would.
We know that when trying to change somebody’s mind, what tends to work is empathy and ongoing dialogue. We want to avoid judgment, disdain, or anger. Scientists need to be transparent about how they draw their conclusions and accept legitimate criticisms. Science is not perfect or magic but just a tool to help us understand the world around us. Trust is crucial for effective communication of knowledge, and trust cannot be built on anything but honesty and openness.
Actually helping wildlife and domestic pets alike requires engaging with all stakeholders. Especially the ones that oppose your stance. As much as we may want to rant and kick and scream at the people who disagree with us, it’s pointless. Not only that, it’s actively detrimental to their understanding and your ability to communicate with them. Like with so many things, in science communication, kindness is key.
As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1789, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” For everything else, there is an inherent degree of uncertainty. We don’t often come face to face with quantitative probabilities in our everyday life, save for one: probability of precipitation (PoP).
A seemingly simple concept, PoP is present in most of our daily routines as we check the weather before getting dressed. You may not explicitly realize it, but we all have personalized thresholds for the PoP at which we will choose to bring an umbrella or cancel an outing. For some, a 60 percent PoP warrants carrying an umbrella; for others, only 80 percent or higher. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have an accurate idea of what PoP truly means, even though most of us are certain we do!
A 60 percent PoP does not mean that 60 percent of an area will receive precipitation. It also does not mean that it will rain for 60 percent of the time period, and it does not mean that a forecaster is 60 percent confident that it will rain. So, what does it mean?
As defined by the National Weather Service, a probability of precipitation (PoP) is the “chance that at least 0.01 [inch] of rain will fall at the point for which that forecast is valid over the period of time given.”
So, a 60 percent PoP means that when these meteorological conditions occur in this area, 6 times out of 10, there will be at least some rain. That’s what PoP is. But how is it calculated?
PoP = Confidence x Coverage
To find the PoP for a given area over a given time period, we take the confidence of the forecaster and multiply it by the area that will be affected by the precipitation. Say I was 100 percent confident that 50 percent of Cleveland would receive at least 0.01″ of precipitation tomorrow, the PoP would be (1 * 0.5 = 0.5) 50 percent. Now, if I was only 80 percent confident in my prediction that 50 percent of Cleveland is getting wet tomorrow, the PoP would be (0.8 * 0.5 = 0.4) 40 percent!
If you stay in the same spot all day (like I did writing this article), then a 40 percent PoP means you have a 4 in 10 chance of being rained on. But, if you move around within an area, or between areas, your probability of encountering rain increases. As Brad Panovich, Chief Meteorologist at WCNC Charlotte put it, “It’s like buying more raffle tickets. Each one you buy increases your chances of winning.”
If you were mistaken about PoP until today, count yourself among good company. Weather forecasts have been available to the general public in the United States since the late 1960s, but in studies, between 35 percent and 73.8 percent of respondents defined PoP wrong, even when they were meteorologists! A viral Tik-Tok from 2019 that incorrectly taught people the untrue percent-of-land PoP definition certainly hasn’t helped things.
It turns out that even those sort of wishy-washy terms meteorologists use to describe weather such as “scattered flurries” or “isolated showers” have fairly strict definitions too. The National Weather Service uses certain expressions to communicate the degree of certainty in a forecast: “slight chance,” “chance,” and “likely.” There are also particular qualifiers to convey the portion of the area that will be affected: “isolated/few”; “widely scattered”; “scattered”; “numerous”; or “occasional/periods of.”
At least in Canada, the term “risk” as in a “risk of thunderstorms” indicates a 30–40 percent chance of said weather occurring. Fun fact, also in Canada, a PoP of 50 percent is never permitted, because it seems too indecisive.
So, to those who previously found themselves cursing the local weather forecaster for never getting it right, hopefully, this article helps explain that your own lack of knowledge was more likely at fault than theirs. Believe it or not, weather forecasts have actually been getting more and more accurate with time. In 1972, a National Weather Service forecast made three days before was off by an average of six degrees. Forty years later, it was down to three degrees. In the late 1980s, when trying to predict where hurricanes would make landfall three days in advance, the National Hurricane Center missed by an average of 350 miles. Now the average miss is only about 100 miles.
Now, that’s not to say that meteorologists can’t be biased. Many weather agencies previously biased their forecasting toward more precipitation than will actually occur. This so-called “wet bias” meant that for years when the Weather Channel predicted a 20 percent PoP, it actually rained only roughly 5 percent of the time. It’s unclear if the wet bias is still influencing forecasts today.
Take a look at the chart below. It shows the percent confidence on the top and the percent area on the side. By multiplying these together we get the PoP at the intersection of the two. The chart is symmetric. For example, if your confidence is 90 percent and the area affected is 50 percent, the PoP equals 45 percent. If the values were opposite, the PoP would still be 45 percent. This means that even though there are multiple ways to arrive at each PoP, in the end, they mean similar things.
A 40 percent PoP can be arrived at by multiplying 100 percent and 40 percent or 50 percent and 80 percent. Therefore, a 40 percent PoP could mean that it is:
Absolute certainty (100 percent) that some (40 percent) of the area will receive rain, or
Quite likely (80 percent) that half (50 percent) of the area will receive rain, or
Somewhat possible (40 percent) that all (100 percent) of the area will receive rain, or
Possible (50 percent) that most (80 percent) of the area will receive rain.
In the end, all these basically mean “you probably won’t need an umbrella, but it’s not a bad idea.”
Similarly, you’ll notice that to get a PoP of 70 percent or above, one of either the confidence or area must be greater than 70 percent. Regardless of whether that’s the result of being very sure it’ll rain over more than half the area, or being fairly sure it’ll rain over the entire area, what matters is that you remember to close your bedroom window.
The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) is a species of jewel beetle native to eastern Asia. In 2002, the beetle was detected for the first time in North America. First in Michigan, then Ontario, although tree ring analysis suggests that it has likely been present in those regions since the early 1990s. Since then, the number of EABs have increased year after year as the bugs spread across Ontario, Quebec and more than half the continental U.S.
An infection of EABs can kill an otherwise healthy ash in 2-5 years. But how can an 8.5 mm long insect kill a tree anyways? One way would be by eating all of its leaves. Without foliage, a tree has no way to photosynthesize, and therefore no way to make energy. Adult EABs do munch on leaves—a loss of tree canopy is a warning sign of EAB infestation—but not usually to the degree that would kill an ash. Instead, it’s the EAB larva that cause the majority of the damage.
EAB eggs are laid on ash branches, and larvae, once hatched, chomp their way under the bark. The little grubs will chew out 6 mm wide S-shaped tunnels called galleries to live in that can be up to 30 cm long. These galleries disrupt a tree’s internal water transport system, taking away its ability to send necessary nutrients up to its branches and leaves. As a result of nutrient deficiency, EAB-infected ash trees often show signs of chlorosis, or a lack of green colour in their uppermost leaves. Dying ash trees will sometimes send out epicormic shoots—little sprouts from the roots or lower trunk and branches—in an attempt to survive.
Most EABs spend winter inside ashes in their larval form. They’re able to withstand temperatures down to -30 ˚C, and are partially insulated by the tree bark. Eventually, come spring, the fully matured beetles will emerge from the ash trees, leaving small capital D-shaped exit holes about 4 mm wide.
The loss of one type of tree might not seem like such a cause for alarm, but the widespread death of ash trees is having many repercussions. In 2015, Montreal was home to roughly 200,000 ash trees. Mont Royal, the iconic park in the centre of the island was, until recently, home to over 10,000 of those trees. But, as a result of the EAB infestation the City of Montreal was forced to cut down about one-third of those ashes. The other two-thirds they chose to treat with preventative insecticides. To make up for the over 3000 lost trees, the city will plant 40,000 saplings. Of these, about 50% are expected to thrive. In 2016 Montreal committed $18 million to fighting the EAB and replacing the ashes it kills. In the U.S., affected states spend an average of $29.5 million per year to manage EAB populations.
The loss of ash trees can impede ecosystems, bring down home values or disrupt food webs. During bad weather, sick or dying ashes can pose a safety risk if they fall or drop branches. And with the loss of these trees comes an increased risk of landslides and flooding, both of which tree roots help to prevent.
On November 21st, 2016 a thunderstorm swept across Melbourne, Australia. It brought with it the usual flooded basements, wet shoes and ruined picnics, but it also brought a strange outbreak of asthma. Asthmatics and non-asthmatics alike suddenly found themselves unable to catch their breath, coughing and in extreme cases not being able to breathe at all. By the time the storm had passed, there was a 672% increase in respiratory-related presentations to emergency departments and a 992% increase in asthma-related admissions to hospital. The storm contributed to the death of at least 10 people.
So what was it about this thunderstorm that spurred a city-wide asthma attack? Experts aren’t certain, but the best guess is pollen. It seems that polled, mould and other allergens can get picked up into a storm, riding on wind currents, and carried into the clouds. Up in the sky, they make contact with water molecules, which causes these allergens to break apart into microscopic particles that can more readily enter human lungs and cause reactions. In the case of Melbourne, the allergen of importance seems to be from ryegrass. A grain of ryegrass pollen can be broken down into 700 starch granules, measuring 0.6 to 2.5 μm, which may then be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs, and cause an asthma attack or an allergic reaction.
As roughly 20% of the world is sensitive to grass or tree pollens, you can imagine that these storms are quite bothersome to many. Melbourne wasn’t the first case of casualties due to storm inflicted asthma, and it sadly will probably not be the last.
While losing the hair on our heads doesn’t have any serious medical implications on its own, it can be seriously damaging to our psyches. Studies have shown that both women and men with alopecia, or hair loss, experience increased stress, diminished self-esteem, and other negative psychological effects.
Some of us live in fear of our part widening or our hairlines receding. Others have made peace with their eventual journey to becoming a Patrick Stewart lookalike. Either way, you’ve likely heard a lot of unsubstantiated claims about behaviors that can cause baldness. As usual, some can be dismissed outright (no, masturbating won’t make you go bald), but some bear further investigation.
Evolution is often thought of as a solely long-term process. But the conception that its effects are only seen after millions of years ignores a crucial part of the evolutionary process: adaptation. Because we tend to fixate on the drastic changes caused by evolution over huge timescales, it’s easy to ignore the small variations between generations that add together over time to form the big evolutionary changes we focus on. This unintentional side-lining of small adaptations can blind us to the ways in which humans are directly affecting the evolutionary processes of nature. From tuskless elephants to fish that can’t smell, animals are developing specialized adaptations to allow them to live in ecosystems that have been disrupted and altered by mankind. These adaptations are one step in the evolutionary process that already bears the unmistakable marks of humanity’s influence.
Just as humans are changing the planet, they’re changing the fauna that inhabit it. Here are some examples of how.