Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Loose Dogs Stress Wildlife Especially Shore Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

Over the years you have complained about outdoor cats. My cat, however, is a true housecat and never goes outside. Meanwhile, dogs are everywhere. I can’t even go for a nature walk anymore without seeing somebody’s dog running around. Why don’t you ever say anything about that?

– Nora, Brewster, MA


You are totally right, Nora,

Whether people want to believe it or not, feral and free roaming housecats are a huge environmental problem, causing the deaths of billions of birds each year. Conversely, indoor cats don’t bother anything (except their owners). If I’ve neglected to point that out, I apologize. You are also right; I haven’t said much about dogs. I figured if the airlines can’t even keep them out of first class, what chance do I have? But lately it seems I see more dogs in the woods than I see birds, and that’s not a good thing. But before people accuse me of being a dog hater, they need to know I’ve had dogs for most of my life. But in the end, I’m always going to come out on the side of birds and other wildlife…as you might expect.

Unlike cats, which have largely escaped regulations, most municipalities require dogs to be licensed and kept on leashes. Unfortunately, leash laws, like speed limit signs, are often ignored, especially when no one is looking. A few weeks ago I was watching a flock of sandpipers feeding on the beach when a flash ran past me. It was an English Setter and it headed right at the sandpipers. The little birds were in the middle of spring migration and they had stopped on this beach to rest before continuing north. As the setter ran at them, the flock took to the air, landing farther down the beach, only to be put up again by the same barking dog. This happened several more times before the birds flew off for good in search of a quieter beach, which is getting harder and harder to find. The dog’s owner seemed to enjoy the sight, as it was fun. However, it wasn’t fun for the exhausted birds.

To be fair, the owner likely didn’t know anything about bird migration. In her mind, this was the beach equivalent of dogs chasing squirrels in the backyard. That’s fine, but the inexcusable part was that she totally ignored a massive sign stating: “Wildlife Refuge. Pets Prohibited.” It was the usual, “this rule doesn’t apply to me” syndrome. It goes without saying that the vast majority of dog owners would have been more considerate, but I should also point out that two minutes after she left, three more leash-less dogs arrived on the same beach. Good luck, sandpipers.

Two nights ago I went to a new conservation area in Orleans. I went there in hopes of conducting an informal census of American Woodcocks. Woodcocks are odd little birds that perform elaborate courtship displays at sunset. But instead of woodcocks, I saw a Springer Spaniel running up and down the trails and racing across the fields. There would be no woodcocks courting in this field on this night, or perhaps any other night in the future. The irony is that I have watched birds on this property for years and have rarely ever seen a dog. That all changed when the land was purchased for “conservation.” Then the signs went up, a parking lot was built, trails were added and in came lots of dogs…off their leashes.

These are not isolated cases. Pets prohibited signs and leash requirements are routinely ignored on most nature trails. If you don’t believe me, take a walk in the woods and see what comes bounding your way. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe it’s time to stop making so many trails. I have several good friends who work for local land trusts, and like the heads of most nonprofits, they aren’t shy about asking for donations. (They know I’m a sucker when it comes to preserving open space.) Recently, however, I’ll only support a project if they promise not to cut trails into the property. Believe me, nobody likes a walk through the woods more than I, but many of these properties are too small to support a trail system. The minute joggers, dog walkers and birders are allowed onto the property, the area becomes less beneficial to wildlife. Conservation land is being turned into parkland, and wildlife suffers because of it. A study conducted in Australia concluded that walking dogs in wildlife habitat causes a whopping 40% reduction in the area’s bird population. Why is that? They aren’t sure, but a theory is that birds see our endearing pets as predators. In their eyes, a charming yellow lab could be a fox, a coyote or in the case of this study, a dingo, which may eat their babies.

Not all birds have a problem with dogs. The robins and cardinals in our backyards have adjusted to them quite well. But woodland birds are more sensitive. Wood Thrushes, Whip-poor-wills, towhees and other ground nesting birds are in serious decline. And while the reasons for their decline are complicated, having a spaniel running over their nesting habitat sure doesn’t help. You are to be commended for keeping your cat inside, Nora. I wish all pet owners were as responsible as you. Keeping dogs out of posted areas and respecting leash laws is important for all wildlife. Although, I don’t mind seeing dogs flying in first class. Goodness knows that boring section could use some excitement.