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Predators and Prey: How Do Cats Respond to Bird Sound Recordings?

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Cats are great house pets, but as every cat observer knows, they are also instinctive hunters. This experiment provides an interesting way to learn about cat behavior. You'll play bird call recordings for pet cats, and watch to see if the cat pays attention to the sound (by turning towards it) or ignores it. Will a pet cat distinguish between the calls of local birds vs. non-local birds?


Areas of Science
Time Required
Long (2-4 weeks)
Material Availability
Specialty items
Very Low (under $20)
No issues

Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies


  • This project is based on the following 2007 California State Science fair project, a winner of the Science Buddies Clever Scientist Award:


The goal of this project is to determine whether cats respond preferentially to familiar bird sounds.


This experiment is based on a 2007 California State Science Fair project by Kelly McGinnis. Kelly's mom was learning to recognize birds and bird calls by watching and listening to a DVD with recordings of birds in the wild. Kelly had the impression that her pet cat became alert and turned its head more often when it heard recordings of birds that were found in their area, and less often for birds that were unfamiliar. She was curious to find out if her hunch was correct, so she set up an experiment to find out.

She selected recordings from three different birds, two local, and one non-local. She used DVD recordings, with both sound and video, and played these test recordings for each of the 32 cats in her study, using a laptop computer. The order of presentation was randomized for each cat tested. She played the recordings for either three minutes or until the cat made an orienting response to the recording (i.e., seemed to search for the bird, by moving its head or body toward the computer).

You could do the experiment with a DVD, as Kelly did, or with an audio CD of bird calls, using a portable CD player to play back the sounds. It's a good idea to have a large sample of cats, like Kelly did, and you may want to select even more bird calls to try. For example, you might want to select three different local bird calls and three different non-local bird calls to test with each cat.

Do you think that cats will pay more attention to bird calls that they have heard before? Or perhaps a novel bird call will prove to be more interesting? You can find out for yourself with this experiment.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:



  • To learn more about predatory behavior in cats, try these webpages:
  • For identifying birds, the Peterson field guides are a valuable resource (various publication dates and titles, typical examples follow):
    • Peterson, R.T., 2002. A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.
    • Peterson, R.T., 1990. A Field Guide to Western Birds: A Completely New Guide to Field Marks of All Species Found in North America West of the 100th Meridian and North of Mexico. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Here's an online guide to identifying birds that includes audio clips of calls for many of the birds:
    eNature.com, 2005. FieldGuides: Birds, eNature.com. Retrieved October 1, 2007.
  • You can also study birds online:
    CLO, 2007. All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved June 8, 2007.
  • This project is based on the following 2007 California State Science fair project, a winner of the Science Buddies Clever Scientist Award:
    McGinnis, K., 2007. Domestic Cat (Felis catus) Responses to Bird Sounds , California State Science Fair Abstract. Retrieved June 8, 2007.

Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Do your background research so that you are familiar with the terms, concepts, and questions, above.
    1. You will need to spend some time identifying local birds that the cats in your study are likely to have encountered.
    2. You will also need to identify some non-local birds that the cats in your study are unlikely to have encountered.
  2. Pick 2-3 examples of local bird songs from your audio CD.
  3. Pick 2-3 examples of bird songs from birds not found in your area.
  4. For each cat in the study, play each of the recordings, in randomized order, at least three times (again, more trials are even better). Naturally, you must test each cat when it is awake and alert!
    1. To randomize the presentation order, first number (or name) each recording.
    2. Write the numbers (or names) down on separate pieces of paper.
    3. Mix up the slips of paper, and blindly draw them from a bowl to determine the presentation order for each test.
  5. Observe the cat closely, and note the responses to each recording in your lab notebook.
  6. You should test at least 20 different cats (more is better). For more information, see the Science Buddies How-To page, Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?
  7. It is a good idea to allow the cat some down time in between the trials, so that it does not become habituated to the recordings. Multiple, short trials will probably work best.
  8. After your tests are complete, you'll need to analyze and summarize the results in your lab notebook.
    1. For each cat, count how many orienting responses were made to each different bird sound.
    2. For all of the cats, what was the average number of orienting responses to each bird sound?
    3. More advanced students should also calculate the standard deviation of the number of responses.
  9. Make bar graphs showing the average number of orienting responses to each bird sound. Did the cats respond preferentially to local birds?
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  • You can also find DVD recordings of birds, with both sounds and images. You can play clips from selected local and non-local birds for cats using a laptop computer. Does the addition of the images increase the likelihood of an orienting response? Are the cats more likely to respond to local vs. non-local birds?
  • Does it make a difference if the cat tested is an indoor-only cat vs. a cat who gets outside? You'll need two test groups for this experiment, each with at least 20 cats. One group needs to be indoor-only pets, and the other group must be cats who are allowed outside. Compare the test results between the two groups. Does outdoor experience make a difference in orienting repsonses to bird sounds?


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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Predators and Prey: How Do Cats Respond to Bird Sound Recordings?" Science Buddies, 20 Nov. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/MamBio_p017/mammalian-biology/how-do-cats-respond-to-bird-sound-recordings. Accessed 28 Nov. 2023.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, November 20). Predators and Prey: How Do Cats Respond to Bird Sound Recordings? Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/MamBio_p017/mammalian-biology/how-do-cats-respond-to-bird-sound-recordings

Last edit date: 2020-11-20
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