Cats, Predators, and Protection: How to Guard Against Coyotes and Birds of Prey
Whenever I see a “Lost Cat” sign in my Phoenix neighborhood, I assume the worst. Coyotes regularly come in from adjacent reservation and state lands to hunt, and birds of prey soar the skies and perch on street lights looking for food. Cats need protection. I take certain precautions with my two pups, and many of the tips also apply to keeping cats safe from these common predators.
Found in every U.S. state except Hawaii, coyotes eat whatever they can find, including seeds and fruit as well as small animals (alive or dead). They pose a particular threat to cats and small dogs. And while many informational resources advise pet owners to be hyper-aware in the spring, when coyotes typically produce pups and their needs for food increase, Rory Aikens, public information officer with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, stresses the need to stay vigilant regarding cat protecction no matter the season, as coyotes can and sometimes do breed as many as six times per year.
1. Start in your backyard
While a wily coyote can breach just about any barrier, some barriers exist to keep the predators out if you have the freedom (read: no homeowners association) to install them. A coyote-proof fence measures 6 feet tall or higher and has a roller bar or 15-inch woven-wire extension on top. It also extends into the ground or has a wire apron to prevent coyotes from digging under and into your yard.
If HOA regulations prevent you from creating such a barrier (or you can't afford one), do the following to make your yard less attractive to the predators:
- Install motion-sensitive lighting.
- Trim landscaping to eliminate hiding places.
- Remove bird feeders, pick up fallen fruits and nuts from trees, and regularly harvest gardens; the food attracts not only coyotes but also their natural prey.
- Keep trash bins in the garage or use animal-resistant models if allowed by your collector.
These efforts also deter invading mountain lions and bobcats, especially if you remove cavelike areas and water sources such as fountains. They also discourage nuisance animals such as possums and raccoons.
2. Change your behavior
If you live in an area where coyotes regularly roam, you can also increase cat safety and protection by doing the following:
- Keep food and water bowls inside.
- Supervise your cat while in the yard, especially at dawn and dusk; never give your cat free access to the outside.
- Do not put a bell on your cat’s collar, as it can attract unwanted attention.
- Never feed wildlife.
3. Know how to handle an encounter
If you spot a coyote in your yard, make eye contact, wave your arms over your head, and yell. If it seems intent on getting closer, throw anything within reach -- rocks, dirt, a shoe -- to let the coyote know you pose a threat. Shine a flashlight on the coyote or turn a hose on it. “Coyotes are smart, incredibly smart, and they know they cannot survive long if injured. Their response, typically, will be to get the heck out of there,” Aikens says.
He also advises, “Don’t come between your pet and the wild animal.” Now, my first instinct would be to do exactly that, but Aikens says that scaring the coyote off serves as your best course of action. If you concentrate only on grabbing your cat, you take your attention away from the coyote; your cat also might scratch or bite you in the stress of the situation. He suggests keeping a baseball bat handy in case you do need to break up a physical altercation between your cat and a coyote. And while harming a coyote while protecting your pet typically won’t land you in trouble with the law, the use of certain weapons within city limits might.
BIRDS OF PREY
Which birds of prey soar above your neighborhood depends on where you live. In the Phoenix area and throughout most of the Southwest, the red-tailed and Harris’ hawks and the great horned owl pose the biggest threats to cats and small dogs.
The hawks hunt rodents and ground-dwelling prey during the day, while the owl comes out during low light and at night to catch ground-dwelling and flying animals. Unfortunately, according to Aikens, domestic cats make up a significant portion of the great horned owl’s diet in this area. Hawks and owls pose a year-round threat in the Southwest, one that only increases from September through April when northern birds of prey take up residence.
1. Provide additional protection
Of course, many of the actions you take to protect your cat against coyotes will carry over to birds of prey, but there are a few additonal measures.
Trim dead branches from trees to eliminate places to perch or nest. If you want your cat to have free access to fresh air without your supervision, turn your patio into a catio or add another type of enclosed cat run to a pet door. You can purchase DIY kits for such runs, opt for easily installed modular enclosures, or use pop-up tents or tunnels.
If a hawk or owl does show up in your yard, bring your cat inside if necessary, then scare the bird off; the beam of a flashlight will send a great horned owl flying. If a bird of prey builds a nest in your yard, keep your cat inside until the babies leave, then remove the nest. Removing one that contains eggs or nestlings violates state and federal laws, as does harming birds of prey in general.
2. Educate your neighbors
It takes a neighborhood to ward off predators. “If you’re doing everything right, but your neighbor is doing everything wrong, you’re going to have conflicts with wildlife,” Aikens says. He stresses the importance of educating newcomers to an area, as they might not fully understand the threat. And while you probably won’t persuade a bird-loving neighbor to take down her feeders, you can take action if a coyote gets too comfortable because of a neighbor’s actions. “If you’ve got a wild animal, like a coyote, that has obviously lost its fear of humans, it could pose a danger. We want to hear about that,” Aikens says.
You can find contact information for your local office at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website.
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