I've recently heard a podcast, in which a professor describes one of the theories as to why we like abstract art. In his talk, he mentions an experiment with seagull chicks, in which the seagull chicks mistake a stick with a red dot for their mother's beak, and in the case of stick with 3 stripes actually preferred it to their mother's beak. When a stick like that is waved around a chick, it starts to peck at it, believing it is mother bird:

chick beak stick seagull

This experiment suggests that birds are imprinted to recognize specific patterns and interpret them as mother.

I'm in trying to create a similar experiment for cats. To do so I'm trying to understand if cats other small predators (ferrets,etc) are imprinted in a similar way - do cats recognize specific features of a bird to identify it as "bird", "prey" or "can hunt and eat"? I'm talking about stuff like - do they recognize eyes, beaks, wings or tail in a special way?

To paraphrase the question: If I'm to create a stick like above, but for cats, what features would be painted on the stick?

I know that butterflies, caterpillars and other insects have evolved to mimick "eyes" on non-vital organs to confuse birds. I'm interested if same stuff exists for small mammal predators. enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Heh, what an interesting idea! I suspect you won't succeed (though I hope I'm wrong), I think that cats are more attracted to movement than anything else. They seem to jump at anything that moves. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ insects and birds with tiny brains are easier since they have small brains. larger brained creatures are harder to hack. cats might not be so easy to fool. also depends on where the wiring is. bats use scent primarily, which is hard to hack. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 18:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @shigeta they do? I would have guessed they use their echolocation. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ Texture might be a part of it. Cat responded with surprise to a still piece of artificial fur. It seems the cat knew that fur might be an animal. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 2:01
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe a random approach could get some answers, if you had a computer program output random patterns to a screen and some method to watch the cat and record when it's interested. $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 16:27

1 Answer 1


Not all cat predatory behavior is innate. Researchers found that cats predatory behavior for birds vs. mice depends to a significant degree on training by the mother: if the mother taught predatory behavior with birds, the kittens grew up to be better at catching birds than at catching mice and vice versa. Supportive data shows that aside from monkeys and other primates, cats are among the most adept at learning by observing the successes and failures of other animals attempting to complete tasks to obtain a reward. This might influence, therefore, a cat's response to and attraction for objects in the air or on the floor.

Blindfolded cats can hunt mice by vibration. Paul Leyhausen, a German animal behaviorist studied domestic cats (and related felines) from the 1950's through the 1970's, and much of what is known about their predatory behavior is thanks to him.

Although their vision is not especially keen, domestic cats see well in dim light and readily perceive motion. According to Leyhausen, prey movement and the direction of movement are the only factors which innately release crouching, stalking, and catching behaviors in cats. When presented with quail, cats were far more likely to go after active quail than those stilled by tonic immobility. Cats are also more likely to go after smaller prey (mice > rats) and mice were much more likely to elicit play pawing.

Leyhausen also demonstrated that rodents were probably the natural prey of cats.

Though there has been much study of cats and predation, little is available on detail of the kind you are interested in. My best guess for a good toy for a cat would be a smaller object that moved along the floor.

More information can be obtained from Leyhausen's book, Cat Behavior: The Predatory and Social Behavior of Domestic and Wild Cats.

Effects of the mother, object play, and adult experience on predation in cats
The effects of experience on the predatory patterns of cats
Tonic immobility in Japanese quail can reduce the probability of sustained attack by cats
The behavioral bases of prolonged suppression of predatory attack in cats


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