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Housecats Are Deadlier Than We Thought

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When your cat leaves you the occasional "gift" on the back steps, you probably don't think much of it. He's a cat, after all – a hunter. Catching mice, birds, even the occasional garter snake is just what he does (even if you sometimes wish he'd hide the evidence).

But Tigger may kill more than four times as much as what he brings home. Kittycams attached to house cats by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed what USA Today called "a secret world of slaughter," and while only 30% of roaming domesticated felines kill small prey – averaging about two animals a week – the feline population is responsible for a significant decline in U.S. bird species. "One in three" of those species is on the decrease, American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick told USA Today, and "cat predation" is one reason why.

Why didn't we know the extent of said "cat predation" before? U of G researcher Kerrie Anne Loyd explained that "previous estimates were probably too conservative," because they didn't count the animals eaten or left behind by cats. But not quite a quarter of the cats' "catches" made it home, and in front of human witnesses; another 30% got eaten, and 49% were left where they were killed. Cameras presumably recorded these other deaths.

VIDEO: "Jar cat" free at last

And cats aren't reserving their homicidal acts for birds, either. In fact, they seem to prefer cold-blooded fare; Loyd and researcher Sonia Hernandez indicated that lizards, snakes, and frogs accounted for 41% of prey. Mammals like chipmunks and voles made up 25%, insects and worms 20% (and yet cats turn up their noses at store-brand tuna?). Birds were just 12% of the death toll.

Unsurprisingly, the cameras also busted the felines engaged in naughtinesses such as crossing roadways (almost half of them), eating and drinking "things they found" (25%, and yuck), checking out storm drains and sewers (yuck squared, 20%), and squeezing into small spaces where they could get stuck (20%). The data suggests that male cats and younger cats were more likely to take risks than females and older cats.

The researchers will present the grisly results this week, at a conference of the Ecological Society of America in Portland, OR. Sixty cat owners in the Athens, GA area furnished their cats for study, affixing small video cameras to breakaway collars each morning. The cats were then let out for the day, and when they returned, the cameras were removed and the footage downloaded; each cat underwent study for a week to ten days, spending about 4-6 hours a day outdoors.

Teaming up with the University of Georgia squad: National Geographic's CritterCam team, who specialize in miniature mobile data-gathering systems that help them record wild-animal behavior. National Geographic's Greg Marshall said the collar cams were their tiniest ones to date.

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