Many feral cat trappers are adamant that Kentucky Fried Chicken is irresistible to cats. I’ve often thought KFC is merely a convenient excuse to visit the den of cholesterol before a gruelling trapping trip. But the Finger Lickin’ allure of the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices has now entered textbooks and webpages on cat trapping.
However, as I am proudly free from the spell of any fast food fad, I feel compelled to inform you about a superior cat bait that relegates KFC to ‘brussel sprout’ status. Here’s the story of how our group of South Australian ecologists discovered what really makes cats drool.
My first tantalising glimpse of a native plains mouse was whilst spotlighting for rare mammals with the Dept for Environment ecologist Helen Owens, near Dalhousie Springs in 1990. At the time we felt very privileged to have seen the largest of the Australian desert mice, which was seemingly destined to join other similar species in being driven to extinction. Over the next decade I saw them again several times where Helen, along with Rob Brandle and Katherine Moseby, monitored these endangered mice at the only two remote desert plains where they could be reliably found anywhere in the world.
Then, while searching for the elusive inland taipan on the Moon Plain near Coober Pedy, Katherine and I discovered another population of plains mice. All three localities exemplified the cute rodent’s name, they were expansive treeless plains, indeed largely devoid of any permanent vegetation. With the exception of the occasional patrolling dingo, you had more chance of seeing Mad Max or Priscilla out there than any mammal larger than a plains mouse. We assumed that treeless plains were somehow integral to plains mouse survival – but we were wrong.
Fast forward to the new millennium and we no longer had to pack swags, eskies and spare jerrys to head out to find plains mice. They came to us. Plains mice spread hundreds of kilometres from their last remaining refuges and turned up en masse at Roxby, Coober Pedy and even the northern Flinders Ranges. It was an extraordinary resurgence, precipitated by the decline of feral cats and foxes after rabbits, their main prey in many deserts, were all but wiped out by calicivirus.
Plains mice found their way into the Arid Recovery Reserve at Roxby, mixing with reintroduced bilbies and bettongs for the first time in over a century. Before long they became the most abundant mammal in the Reserve, in constant danger of being skittled as we drove slowly at night looking for their rarer, reintroduced mates. And they were not just restricted to barren plains. We found their holes and runways all over dunes, through mulga woodlands and on saltbush flats. Their resurgence explained historic records from the well vegetated Flinders Ranges and Eyre Peninsula, where the vegetation is vastly different to their last stronghold in the open desert plains.
KFC John! Get back on track!
Whilst we were astounded by the plains mouse resurgence on dunes at Arid Recovery, a group of us was also religiously dissecting every feral cat that was shot or trapped in the region. Kelli-Jo Kovac, Hugh McGregor, Katherine and I dissected 2,293 cats over 27 years, an odorous privilege on a scale that no other Australian scientists have matched. To work out what animals cats preferred to hunt, we compared the 3,234 animal remains we found in cat’s guts with over 70,000 animal records we had accumulated from the region.
You’ve probably already guessed.
The number one animal selected by feral cats was the plains mouse: 50g of rodent flesh packaged up in a cute furry parcel. This reinforced our observations of cats patrolling the boundary of the Arid Recovery Reserve, feasting on the smorgasbord of plains and hopping mice spilling through the cat-proof fence. Most cats preferred catching plains mice to any bait, even greasy portions from a red and white bucket. It dawned on us that plains mice didn’t particularly like barren plains, but they were the only place these furred ice-creams could persist where rabbits were scarce and dingoes kept feral cats at bay.
We now had a chance to see if plains mice could also re-establish in other parts of their former range where cats were eliminated. Thirty years ago I would have scoffed at an attempt to reintroduce them to mallee woodlands and spinifex dunes on the Eyre Peninsula, but we are now trying just that in our Mallee Refuge exclosure at Secret Rocks.
In early May we moved 50 plains mice, all readily captured within a couple of hours in just one small section of the Arid Recovery Reserve. Some were ‘soft released’ into pens with food and shelter, and 19 were fitted with tiny radio collars to help us track their survival and movements for their first 6 weeks. Would they dig deep enough holes to escape the cold? Would they find enough food and avoid the owls? Could they compete with the larger Mitchell’s hopping mouse? Would they run out through the fence and be gobbled by cats?
Every day we learn a little more about whether these endearing and very tasty rodents might survive, maybe even thrive, in such a different environment to where they have lived for over a century. It’s way too early to even guess the answer but we know, by removing cats and foxes, we’ve given them a chance.
John L. Read, PhD, author-ecologist
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