In search of ponies: Cat tracking sounds purrfect
They show up on doorsteps with tail feathers conspicuously hanging from clenched rows of sharp little teeth, their eyes pleading but proud.
“A gift, for you” they seem to convey as they drop a broken bird on the doormat and swirl around your legs, purring with accomplishment.
Some hide under bushes, darting away as you walk past, while others leave trails of footprints up the hood and across the windshield of the car, a clue that they were there.
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Then there are the random feather piles left behind in gardens and yards, the glowing green eyes that shine under headlights at night and the shadowy specters that slide into the darkness, only around long enough to set the neighborhood dogs off for hours to come.
These are the cats who wander, exploring, hunting, satisfying their curiosity and doing whatever it is cats do.
Their elusive, secretive ways are almost a signature, defining them as a species — traits not sacrificed by those of them who belong to humans, no matter how deep the bond.
As a result, the elusive traits and habits of cats bring about questions — where and how far they go and what they eat along the journey being chief among them — and scientists want the answers.
It’s a purrrfect reason to study the habitat and habits of the domestic feline, according to a team of researchers from North Carolina, who have launched a unique citizen scientist project aimed at doing just that.
Putting cat owners in charge of the research, it’s as simple as strapping a GPS harness on Felix and letting him do whatever it is he does (note: only owned pets need apply, so don’t get any ideas about the neighborhood stray).
After nine days of catting around, the data is uploaded, and Cat Tracker does the rest.
Cat Tracker produces a satellite map of a cat’s stomping ground, complete with zig zagging yellow lines to show where the slinky creature ventured during their stint.
The Cat Tracker website, cats.yourwildlife.org, provides complete instructions and requirements — observation of local animal laws among them — for those interested in signing up their critters.
So far, 48 kitties have participated — their maps are available for viewing online — and their adventures are as varied as their personalities.
Some follow the same route each day, heading north, then south as if patrolling day after day, with the dot that represents home at the center of their world.
Others weave in all directions, the resulting pattern looking like a messy nest around their home dot.
Domestic cats have long been suspected and sometimes blamed for impacting birds and other species — estimates place annual bird deaths between 1-4 billion and mammal deaths from 6-22 billion — through their predation habits, but little data has actually been gathered to prove or disprove those theories.
If those numbers are accurate, free-ranging kitties could be having a dramatic impact on wildlife; a dynamic Cat Tracker aims to gain better understanding.
The project also hopes to learn more about their travel patterns, and what, if any, impact their wanderings have on their health as they come into contact with a world of microorganisms in the great beyond.
But perhaps more interesting, particularly to the humans that know them and the area they are exploring best, the project gives insight into what cats are doing when they disappear for random pockets of time.
It may be surprising to discover that somewhere between sunning on the car and dropping dead birds on the mat, a world of adventure is weaving through your neighborhood.
Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: [email protected]