House Pets vs Wildlife


(This 1067th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 4, 2011.)


A great deal has been written about house cat predation on wildlife: birds, rabbits and chipmunks appear to be their main targets. But it is not nearly as easy to find information about wildlife preying on house pets.

     A reader has written to inquire about this very subject. He has noticed an increasing number of red-tailed hawks in his area and wonders if there is a chance that one of these big buteos might pick off his small dog or his neighbor's cat.

     The most prominent suspects among avian predators are that red-tailed hawk and the great horned owl. Both have been known to prey on animals as large as woodchucks, raccoons and porcupines, but I doubt that they could lift such animals off the ground.

     As to predation of domestic animals, I found two episodes among Bent's Life Histories. Here are excerpts: "A large red-tailed hawk plunged down into the meadow. Instantly there was a mighty commotion. Hissing, flopping, spitting, caterwauling; and one could see feet, claws, wings and tails whirling about just over the grass. The air was full of fur and feathers for a few moments, then the hawk made his getaway, and with feathers much ruffled flew for the timber as fast as his wings could carry him. And an old gray tomcat went with great bounds in equal haste for the farm buildings."

     "A great horned owl fluttered up in front of my car and flew laboriously down the road. The headlights showed it to be carrying something heavy, which it could not lift two feet off the ground. I gave chase, and the bird dropped clumsily a hundred yards farther on, to crouch defensively atop its prey. I stopped the car and turned on my strong spotlight. The owl's attention was riveted by the dazzling beam, and while it stood motionless staring into the glare, I crept up cautiously on the dark side, threw my jacket over it and pinioned it down. Folding the bird safely into my jacket, I stooped to pick up its prey, which to my surprise proved to be a half-grown house cat. The kill had evidently just been made, for the limp body was still warm and quivering."

     These stories suggest that indeed small house pets, especially those not full-grown, can be killed by these birds. And by far the stronger of the two, the horned owl, is the greater threat. This warns that you should beware releasing or even leading a small dog or cat near a forested area at night.

     But increasingly today hawks and owls may be the least of your worries. The coyote population has increased over the years and they are known to take house pets, including animals up to the size of calves. And do not think that simple pens can protect animals outside for coyotes are talented diggers.

     They are also very intelligent. Steve Searles, a Colorado game manager says, "Coyotes are known for luring a domestic dog out away from safety by a vixen howling her heart out." Then several coyotes attack the outnumbered dog.

     As coyotes take over the countryside, foxes are moving into suburban and even urban areas. A far lesser threat, they can still pick off a pet rabbit or a farmer's chicken. A Springfield man who raised waterfowl told me that he helplessly watched a fox leap easily over a five foot fence, trot over to a nesting box, grab a duck egg, and retrace its steps with the egg held in its mouth. That level of effrontery suggests that they can easily raid your yard.

     I have, of course, painted too lurid a picture of our out-of-doors. You don't have to keep your toy bulldog or even your chihuahua indoors. I certainly don't want to decrease still further the time you exercise your pet or even more important the time you spend outside yourself. But you should recognize that your neighborhood for small animals may be like what our most dangerous urban police districts are for us.

     I would like to write another column on this subject based on your experiences with wildlife predation. I am sure that many of you feel that we are the interlopers in the world of wildlife. That's fine, but I am still interested in your stories of confrontations.