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Bird Watching for Cats: Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats (Vet-Reviewed)

Written by: Chris Dinesen Rogers

Last Updated on May 9, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team


Bird Watching for Cats: Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats (Vet-Reviewed)


Dr. Alice Athow-Frost Photo


Dr. Alice Athow-Frost

Veterinarian, BVM BVS MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Felines are predators, and although your indoor kitty might not be doing much hunting these days, predators like to locate and catch prey, as it keeps them mentally and physically stimulated. Science has learned that these animals need these types of stimulation to thrive, especially if they live indoors.

While interactive toys offer some entertainment, some pets need more mental stimulation in their lives. An excellent way to provide enrichment is through bird watching. Attracting avian friends to your home allows your cat to watch (but not kill) birds and will keep your pet occupied, all while keeping them within the confines of your home. So, why do cats like watching birds, and will it really benefit my cat? Read on to find out.

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How Does It Work?

Basically, all you have to do is attract birds to your home, where your cat can actually see them, and let your cat lounge in front of a window or door to watch them.

Like other animals, birds need three things to survive: food, water, and shelter. You can attract them to your home for your cat to watch by providing one or more of these elements. Bird feeders are an excellent, hands-off way to draw them to your home. Birds typically scope their territory, looking for food sources. They also learn from watching other birds. Species living near people learn to recognize feeders and what they have to offer.

Setting up a water source requires a little more maintenance. You must refresh the water every day to remove feces and algae that might accumulate.  A weekly clean of the birdbath is important to prevent disease. You must also keep it filled, a challenge for those in warm climates or during a hot summer. There are also some useful tips for keeping bird baths ice-free in colder climes, such as placing a light ball in the bath which will be moved by the lightest breeze, preventing the water from freezing around the ball.

You may have shelter in place already if you have trees or shrubs in your yard. Birds will use these areas to rest and nest during the mating season. Ideally, all three components will be near a window or door where your cat can watch the action. Remember that providing these elements is crucial to attracting birds for your cat to watch. When provided with the right resources, birds will be drawn in, and your cat will likely sit in the window and watch them for hours.

Image Credit: Smile19, Shutterstock


What Are the Different Types of Ways to Attract Birds?

Bird feeders are probably the easiest and most entertaining way to provide environmental enrichment for your cat. Birds eat frequently during the day, allowing your kitty to observe your feathered friends flying around regularly. Interestingly, they are typically inactive during the middle parts of the day when your cat is likely sleeping, too. This is thought to be because the risk of predation in the middle part of the day is higher than the bird’s need for food.  Birds typically feed in the early morning and towards the end of the day.  Ensuring the feeder is frequently cleaned and always filled is essential to keep them coming back for more.

You can hang a feeder from a nearby tree or shrub. You can also set up a pole feeder or one on a platform, but we recommend getting a squirrel baffle to fend off unwanted visitors. Author George Harrison suggests following the 5-7-9 rule 1. Hang or place your feeder at least 5 feet off the ground, 7 feet from the nearest launch point, and 9 feet below overhanging branches to make it less accessible to squirrels.

You can also get a feeder that sticks to the window with suction cups. It’s an excellent way to observe the birds up close. The chances are that you’ll have to put any other type some distance from your cat’s vantage point which makes birdwatching somewhat less entertaining.

As mentioned, offering a bird bath or even a birdhouse could also attract birds to your garden. However, you might not be able to put these as close to your windows as you would a bird feeder, but that’s up to the individual and your yard’s layout.

Image Credit: Ancha Chiangmai, Shutterstock

Where Should You Set Your Station Up?

We recommend placing your set-up somewhere accessible for you to do maintenance and where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic that may scare off the birds. The placement also depends on the species that live in your area and their preferences. Birds often select areas that fulfill other needs, such as nesting sites. Another consideration is the surrounding vegetation.

If you want to attract seed-eating birds like American Goldfinches, planting Aster plants, dandelions, sunflowers and thistles can add another incentive to keep the birds visiting your home for food and nest building materials.  We suggest observing what species are visiting your feeder to tailor the food you provide to their needs. You can also hang a suet feeder during the winter to keep them visiting year-round.

Feel free to use more than one spot as a perch for your cat to take advantage of the different habitats your yard may have. For example, shaded places are a great location to put a hummingbird feeder because being in the shade will attract fewer bees (bees like to feed in direct sunlight). You can hang one directly outside of a window to make it more enjoyable and entertaining for your kitty.

bengal cat looking at the bird feeder in window
Image Credit: Steve Heap, Shutterstock

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Advantages of Bird Watching for Cats

The advantage of bird watching over other forms of enrichment is the variety and spontaneity of the activity. Cats often get bored with toys, so rotating them frequently is necessary. However, you will find the scene changes daily with your avian friends. That will secure your pet’s interest in this form of entertainment. Also, offering different kinds of food will attract more birds and different species.

Giving your kitty outdoor access is problematic. Research has shown that cats are linked to the extinction of 40 bird species. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that felines kill up to 4 billion birds annually. Setting up a bird-watching station for your indoor cat gives them visual access while keeping your feathered friends safe. The birds will ensure it doesn’t get boring, and your cat will be mentally stimulated for long periods on a daily basis.  Cats that are stimulated through enrichment and play are less likely to become stressed and therefore less likely to exhibit behavior problems.

Image Credit: Andrzej Puchta, Shutterstock

Disadvantages of Bird Watching for Cats

Perhaps one of the main disadvantages is the mess feeding birds make. If you have ever cared for an avian pet, you know they aren’t the neatest eaters. Food goes flying, and you’ll find hulled seeds everywhere, not to mention the birds’ waste that gets left behind. Putting a feeder in an inconspicuous spot can make it a non-issue. Of course, there’s also your time and financial commitment.

Another thing to consider is that placing a feeding station near a window poses the risk of birds hitting the glass. You can reduce the chances of injury by using window decals to help birds realize they can’t fly through a window.   These need to be installed in such a way that a bird can see no way of flying between the decals, so they need to be no more than 2 inches apart.

Anecdotally speaking, some cats might also become frustrated by not being able to actually hunt and catch the birds, although many people report that their cats love it.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Keep the Squirrels Away?

If you hang a feeder, you can count on squirrels, mice, and other unwanted visitors. Fortunately, you don’t have to sacrifice your cat’s bird-watching station. Bird feeders placed far enough away from the ground and overhanging branches will deter squirrels from getting to them.  It is thought that good placement of the feeder is more effective against squirrels than baffles and other techniques.

What Are the Risks to My Cat if I Don’t Offer Enrichment?

Cats without adequate enrichment may develop behavioral problems such as inappropriate urination (spraying on walls or urinating outside of the litter box), overgrooming or aggression. They may sleep a lot out of boredom. Some animals may engage in destructive behavior.

How Do I Get My Cat to Use the Bird-Watching Station?

You may need to show your cat the station when birds are feeding at it. It may only take one time for your pet to catch on to the new enrichment. They will likely chirp and squeal when the avian visitors flit around the feeder.

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A Quick Reference Guide for Feeding Birds for Your Bird-Watching Station

Species Foods to offer
Northern Cardinal Millet, sunflower seeds, cracked corn
Downy Woodpecker Mealworms, suet, peanut hearts
American Goldfinch Nyjer, sunflower seeds
House Finch Nyjer, safflower, sunflower seeds

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Setting up a feeder is an excellent way to help birds near your home while providing valuable enrichment for your indoor cat. Kitty gets to enjoy the activity of the avian visitors while keeping the birds safe from predation. Many people find connecting with nature in this way relaxing, providing welcome stress relief, and your pet will undoubtedly enjoy this novel entertainment too.

Featured Image Credit: Viktor Kovtun, Shutterstock

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