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Desert Diary


The northern Chihuahuan Desert lacks native cats smaller than the Bobcat. House cats, originating in the Old World, were introduced into the northern regions of the Spanish Empire virtually at first colonization, as evidenced by remains recovered from archaeological investigations in northern New Mexico.

Introduction of the domestic cat has had far reaching effects, for unlike the native cats, this small relative is an avid birder. No, not avocational bird watching, but viewing as breakfast, dinner, or supper. A stalk-and-pounce hunter, it's an expert at stealthily approaching its prey to within striking distance. At times, it may even successfully snatch that most agile of all avians, a hummingbird, from mid-air. By one estimate, birds make up about 20% of the prey of domestic cats. Although this may not seem like much, a ballpark figure of the number of birds taken each year is around 39 million. Estimates of their impact within the Chihuahuan Desert apparently aren't available, but there is no doubt that our feline friends have an important impact here, as elsewhere.
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

cat portrait

A domestic cat, mighty hunter of birds. Photograph by F.E. Schwein.