It may be hard to imagine cats, one of the most beloved pets in the world, as brutal bird-killing machines. Yes, even your sweet little fluffy Whiskers can spell doom for your backyard birds. If you have neighborhood cats or you let your cat outside near your bird feeders, then you should know how to keep cats away from bird feeders.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, “Predation by domestic cats is the number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada”. They also estimate in the United States alone, cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds EVERY YEAR.
The cats can’t help it, it’s just in their nature as predators. I grew up with outdoor cats and have many memories of them bringing us birds and baby rabbits they had caught in the yard. But I’m not a cat-basher! I love cats and have one of my own, and will likely always be a “cat lady”.
If you have started to feed birds in your backyard and worry about hunting cats, you would be wise to keep an eye out. A well fed pet cat will kill birds just as readily as a hungry stray. Let’s look at some ways to keep your feathered friends safe from cats whether they are your own pets, neighborhood pets, or ferals and strays.
How to keep cats away from bird feeders
Feral & Neighborhood Cats
1) Make feeders hard to reach
Any kind of ground based feeder is a bad idea. Feeders that hang right on back decks are also easy targets for cats. It is best to hang feeders from a tall pole, and make sure the pole has a good baffle. You can buy your pole and baffle separately, or as an all-in-one system.
In most cases, cats are nabbing birds when they are on the ground or sitting nearby. Just by having feeders out you will likely attract many birds to the yard looking around the ground for dropped seed or just hanging out between visits to the feeder. Our next tips will address this issue.
2) Spray / Scent deterrent
Cats have a very good sense of smell, and there are certain smells they really don’t like. Odors that are very strong and sharp such as citrus, mint, cinnamon, vinegar and pepper. This Green Gobbler Orange Oil Concentrate is marketed as a household cleaner but has gained huge popularity as a really good cat deterrent. It’s also easy to DIY your own smelly mix and spray it around (not on) your feeders and anywhere else in the yard you see cats hanging out.
Here are a few recipes I’ve seen, or try and make your own
- 1:1 Mix Apple Cider Vinegar and Water
- 1:3 Oil (eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass, peppermint) to water
- Water, a few drops of dish soap, rosemary essential oil
- Boil orange peels for 10 minutes to create your own orange oil water
3) Add spikes
Cats like to stalk their prey by crouching down low and slowly creeping through cover to sneak up on their targets. If cats are stalking your feeders, it may help to make all the surrounding bushes and shrubs unpleasant places for cats to sit and walk through.
- Prickly Landscaping: Cat may have a lot of fur but they have the same soft skin as us underneath and are just as annoyed and pained by plants that have thorns or foliage that is sharp and irritating. Plants like cactus, holly, and roses will be tough for cats to maneuver through, however birds will have no problem navigating spikes.
- Scat Mats: These plastic Scat Mats have lots of pointy spikes that make walking on them downright unpleasant. You can lay them along the ground where cats are hiding or congregating. They are flexible so you can also wrap them around feeder poles or trees to keep kitties (and squirrels) from climbing. Lots of positive reviews.
4) Sprinkle Pepper
Cats are susceptible to the burning and irritation of capsaicin in hot peppers just like we are. You can make your own spray by mixing cayenne pepper based hot sauce with water. You can also sprinkle cayenne pepper flakes around the feeders and any shrubs where cats are hiding.
Sometimes the smell will drive them away. But the real deterrent is if they walk over the flakes they will get the pepper oils on their paws and fur, and can transfer the oils onto their face and eyes. This will cause burning and irritation.
This can be pretty unpleasant for cats so you may not want to use this method if you are trying to deter your own pets or a neighbors pet. It might send a good message to “keep away” for feral cats though.
5) Keep feeders away from hiding spots
Cats like to stalk their prey. They will be most successful in catching birds around your feeder if they are able to sneak up on them. They will need places to hide and get close unnoticed by the birds. Bushes, decks, patio furniture, woods along the yard line, etc. Keep your feeders out in the open, at least 10-12 feet away from nearby cover where cats can hide. They will have a better chance of spotting an approaching feline and having time to fly away.
6) Don’t feed Strays
This is pretty simple. If you are attracting stray cats to your yard by leaving out food, don’t. It doesn’t matter how well fed you are keeping the cats, they will still go after your birds.
7) Motion Activated Sprinkler
This is a great scare tactic for almost any unwanted backyard animal. The sudden spray of water is startling and let’s face it, nobody likes getting a blast of water unexpectedly. Plus, it’s very humane. It’s only water after all, not gonna hurt the kitties. The Hoont Cobra Animal Repeller gets good reviews on Amazon and has a night detection mode – so it will even deter cats prowling around your yard at night (along with raccoons and skunks).
Your Pet Cats
In a recent UK study, after describing the very real damage cats do to the bird populations, cat owners were asked if they would take measures to restrict their cats from roaming freely outside. It was found that “52% said they would not try to keep their pet on their property at all times, and 46% said they strongly disagreed with the idea.”
Many underestimated the amount of birds that cats were killing. While others see cats as “part of nature”. However domestic cats were bred and introduced by humans, and their huge numbers are a man-made effect. Here are some ways you can be a more responsible cat owner and keep both the birds you enjoy feeding, and your furry friend, happy.
8) Keep pet cats indoors
This is the most obvious solution if the cat problem is your own pet. Invest in a few scratching posts, maybe a window perch or two. There’s no reason cats can’t be indoor-only creatures. The side benefit of this is you can save yourself and your cat a lot of trouble by avoiding fights with other cats, ticks, getting sprayed by skunks, ingesting parasites and getting hit by a car. It’s safer for your birds, and the cats, if the cats stay inside.
But, I understand many people do not like the idea of keeping their cats inside all the time. For those that want their cats to be able to enjoy the outdoors, read on.
9) Use brightly colored collars
If you feel kitty must go out, try a large and brightly colored collar. This BirdsBeSafe collar cover is made just for this purpose. Yes, it looks a little silly. Like a rainbow hair scrunchie that fits over your cats existing collar. But birds are especially adept at seeing bright colors. This collar will allow them to spot a cat coming much sooner and may give them time to escape. For something so simple, it works surprisingly well. Provided you can get Muffins to suffer the fashion faux-paw. (see what I did there?)
10) Build a Catio
A Catio (yes, a patio for cats) can be the best of both worlds. It is a fenced in enclosure that will allow kitty to get some sun, fresh air and grass while still contained. Catios have become rather popular, and there are many styles to chose from. Simple mesh cat tents or larger wood & wire enclosures, the choice is yours.
You can also get creative and DIY your own space. Build your own enclosure or set aside a portion of your deck and use wire or fabric mesh to close it off.
11) Leash Train
Cats have a bit of a reputation for being impossible to train. Yes, they can be quite stubborn, but with the right methods they can be trained to walk on a leash. Here is a quick Humane Society video to get your started, however there are tons of how-to videos on YouTube about leash training that go more in depth.
Methods to avoid
- Mothballs: many mammals don’t like the smell of mothballs and they are often recommended as deterrents. This is off-label use of mothballs, they have never been intended for this purpose. Ingesting them or even prolonged exposure to them can cause illness in cats (and any animal really). Remember, they are toxic pesticides and you really don’t want to be using them in your yard.
- Bell Collars: putting a little bell on the cat’s collar really isn’t going to be effective in alerting birds to their approach. Birds simply don’t take much notice of this sound.
- Fences: Cats are great at jumping and climbing. It is unlikely a standard fence will be able to keep them in or out of your yard. However if you want to expend the money and effort, the Purrfect Cat Fence company makes special fencing and add-on pieces for existing fences.
- Petroleum Jelly: If cats climbing your feeder pole is a problem smearing slick and sticky petroleum jelly on the pole may work to keep them off. However, this is bad news for birds if they get it on their feathers. It will be hard for them to clean the goop off, and in the meantime it can hinder their ability to fly, making them even easier for cats to catch. Better to use a good baffle if pole climbing is a problem.