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Thursday, 23 December, 1999, 11:42 GMT
Feline bleeper saves the birds

cat Collared: One cat that will have to settle for replica birds in future

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A UK company has devised a high-tech way of reducing the slaughter of millions of birds by domestic cats.

The company, Willana Lifesciences, produces a cat collar which emits a faint bleep every seven seconds. The firm is receiving a UK Government grant to help it to develop the device.

Cat owners who have bought the collars - marketed under the slogan "A bird in the bush is worth two in the cat" - have kept records of the wildlife their animals have killed, and these have been analysed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

The BTO found that cats normally caught one bird a week, but those wearing the collar caught one on average only once every 2.5 weeks.

It says there are an estimated 7.2m cats in the UK, and even if only one million kill a bird a week, fitting the collars could reduce the number of birds killed from 50m to 20m.

The lighthouse keeper's cat

The worldwide potential is large. The 73m cats living in US households are estimated to kill more than 1.4bn birds annually.

Cats are blamed for driving some species to extinction, like the Stephen Island wren, which used to be found on a speck of land in Cook Strait, between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

In 1894, the island's lighthouse keeper acquired a cat, which killed a strange bird later identified as the Stephen Island wren.

Nine specimens brought home by the cat were sent to the British Museum, and scientists believe the wren may have been the only flightless passerine bird.

bird Safe for now: A New Zealand rock wren
Its distribution was limited to less than one square mile on Stephen Island, and in time it was wiped out, mostly thanks to the cat.

Three similar species survive in New Zealand, the rock wren, rare bush wren, and the rifleman, and there are hopes the new collar could help to save them from extinction.

Although the collar does seem to help birds, it has no effect on the numbers of mice, rats and other mammals the cats catch.

Curiosity kills

Liam Martin of Willana Lifesciences told BBC News Online: "The collars seem to act as a head-up factor for birds, but they may just arouse curiosity in mammals.

"Most people who buy the collars programme them to switch off when daylight fades. The birds are in their nests by then, while the mammals are out and about.

"We are receiving European Union funding, and will be investigating various sounds as alerts for different species."

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See also:
11 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
Vanishing bitterns worry birdlovers
06 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
Quarter of parrot species on brink

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