Cats provide pointed illustration to importance, purpose of distinguished scholar's work

Domestic cats provided a sobering conclusion to Dr. Greg Farley's scholarly presentation Tuesday at Fort Hays State University.

Farley, an ornithologist, is a professor of biological sciences. He spoke for about half an hour on the research he has conducted at FHSU and about some of his findings on bird migrations through this region since he began at FHSU as an assistant professor in 1995. In introducing that work, he praised the work of the more than 300 students and an additional number of volunteers who have helped in the data collection.

The scholarly presentation at the Honors Convocation is an honor that comes with the designation as the President's Distinguished Scholar, selected by an evaluation committee chaired by Provost Larry Gould and named by President Edward H. Hammond at the Fall Convocation at the beginning of each fall semester. Farley is the 22nd President's Distinguished Scholar.

Hammond presented Farley with the scholar's medallion, a lapel pin, a certificate and a $1,500 check after the presentation.

In Farley's years here, the more than 7,000 individual birds captured represent more than 120 different species. In a typical year, said Farley, that means 300 individuals and about 42 species. Though the presentation would become educational and, in the matter of the cats, grim, Farley included a special note on one of those species, which turned up in the nets this year for the first time.

"Typically we catch a new animal every year," he said, a bird that has not been caught in the years before. "This year," he said, "for the first time in 44 years -- and I'm not making this up -- we caught a Hammond's flycatcher."

The fall banding station at FHSU began in 1966. The top 10 over those years? No. 1 in terms of numbers is the house wren. No. 2 is the orange-crowned warbler. The Nashville warbler comes in at No. 5. No. 6 is the gray catbird. Tenth is Swainson's thrush.

This is not ducks and geese. Many of these are small creatures, and yet they migrate thousands of miles each year, from wintering grounds in South America to breeding ground in the north. The collection station at FHSU is one of only two in the entire region. The other is in South Dakota and has been in operation only a third as long.

"For this region," said Farley, indicating the Great Plains on the screen display behind him, "this is a very rare data set."

This year the data might be even more rare, because the site where the nets are set up to catch samples from the fall migration have been discovered by cats -- domestic cats -- some free-roaming, some perhaps let out to wander by their owners, but all fatal to birds caught in the nets.

"Free roaming" is the biologist's preferred term for cats that live among but not with humans. It distinguishes them from pets, which live directly with humans, and wild, or feral, cats, who live totally independently of people.

"There is a 700-percent increase in mortality this year from any previous year. It is severe," he said, adding later that in the three years previous to this there were no bird mortalities at all caused by cats.

When the cats are present, Farley either does not open up the nets or the nets are guarded. Either way, bird captures, banding and data go down disastrously.

The data is important. Migration is more than a biological curiosity. It is vital to the survival of species. Kansas is an important stop-over point for hundreds of species of birds, large and small. Size is no indicator of migratory travel. One example cited by Farley is the blackpoll warbler, "a 10-gram animal," he said, which travels from New England in the United States to northern South America in a single 80- to 90-hour flight, and then a few months later makes the trip back.

Ten grams, by the way, is less than half an ounce. An average slice of bread weighs more than a breeding pair of blackpoll warblers.

"The trip … requires a degree of exertion not matched by any other vertebrate," said Farley, quoting a 1978 study. Continuing from that study, he quoted, "For a man, the metabolic equivalent would be to run four-minute miles for 80 hours. … If a blackpoll warbler burned gasoline for fuel instead of its reserves of body fat, it could boast of getting 720,000 miles to the gallon!"

For many birds, Kansas is a crucial rest stop just for the survival of species, said Farley, citing multiple sandpiper, hummingbird, pelican, crane, duck, hawk and songbird species. For some of those birds, between 25 and 75 percent of all individuals in a species will pass through Kansas.

But the conclusion to the presentation on his research in bird migration and an overview of the migratory cycle was the grim news on the feline obstruction to this year's banding and data collection. That has prompted additional research into domestic cats, free-roaming and pets, and the difficulty in controlling them. He has no animosity toward them, but they are hunters, he said.

Free roaming colonies may be neutered, he said, but they still hunt. Trap, neuter and release programs have to capture between 71 and 94 percent of the population to be successful, and this still doesn't account for immigration. Citing a peer-reviewed study, he said that cats, he said, free roaming and pets, kill an estimated 1 billion individual birds in the United States every year.

"Well-fed cats as well as sterilized cats will kill," he said. "That's what they do."

Another problem is the way people see the cats and the way they see migratory birds. The birds are seen as "populations," as an aggregate. "But their own cats are 'Boots' or 'Mr. Bigglesworth,'" he said.

Farley was lavish in his praise of and thanks to colleagues, students, volunteers and his predecessors. "There are many people at Fort Hays State who have helped me succeed here," he said. When he came here, this research was not on his agenda, he said. But going through decades of data collected before him, particularly by Dr. Charles Ely, he couldn't let it drop.

He had a larger comparison to make, both with the importance of banding migratory birds at FHSU and the only other similar site on the central Great Plains, and with the cats. Banding specimens here provides scientists get a bigger picture of the overall health of bird populations and the environment and habitat they need. The cats, introduced by man, are a microcosm of human impact on that habitat and populations of wild animals.

"The phenomena we see on a small sample," he said, referring both to the FHSU banding site and the damage caused by an alien species of predator, introduced by humans, "is indicative of what happens in the large sample."

His illustration for the "large sample," projected on the screen behind him, was a photo of the beautiful blue ball of the earth.

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