Cats are as much a part of this seaside town's genteel culture as rainbow-colored Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, trolley tours and cocktails on the porch at sunset.

They're also suspect No. 1 in many deaths of the endangered piping plover, a fist-sized, white-and-brown fuzzball of a bird that has closed beaches and stopped development projects in the interest of protecting their habitat.

With only 115 pairs of piping plovers left in the state, the federal government may intervene on the side of the birds, which has set both fur and feather flying here. Cat lovers fear the roaming felines will be euthanized, while bird lovers are wary of a rare species being wiped out.

"This is a very emotional issue; this really is a cat town," said resident Pat Peckham. "I think they should leave the cats where they are. I'm a firm believer in letting nature take its course."

A cat's nature and its appetite for critters are just what have bird enthusiasts concerned.

Cape May is one of the prime bird-watching spots in all of North America; the World Series of Birding is held here each year. And with bird watching and related expenditures bringing in nearly $2 billion a year to New Jersey's economy, the feathers may win this fight.

The plovers, which breed on East Coast beaches during warm weather, build nest in sandy, open stretches of beach, making them and their chicks easy prey for a variety of predators, including foxes, gulls, raccoons and cats.

"I think the cats are more of a nuisance than anything else," said resident Bill Schemel. "They're killing endangered birds that belong out here. Cats are not part of the natural environment. They're here because someone's cat had a litter and they dumped them out in the woods."

As part of federally mandated beach management programs, communities with populations of threatened or endangered species are required to prevent the birds from being harmed.

Biologists say beach closures, twine barriers and other buffers between birds and humans are paying off: Plover populations along the East Coast have rebounded from 722 pairs in 1985 to 1,743 pairs this year, federal officials said.

Annette Scherer, a senior biologist with the Fish & Wildlife Service, said the agency is studying the situation in Cape May. Possible recommendations could include asking the city to adopt laws requiring cats to be licensed, prohibiting free-roaming cats and abandoning cats and feeding wildlife, including feral cats.

For the past 12 years, Cape May has been attempting to keep its cat population in check through a program known as trap, neuter and release, said John Queenan, the city's animal control officer. After being "fixed," the cats are quarantined to ensure that they are healthy, then returned to the wild.

But a May 18 fire destroyed a trailer that a local animal rescue group had used to house the cats, killing 37 of them. A replacement facility is not yet ready, and fewer cats are being picked up.

Eric Stiles, vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society, is working on a pilot project to find a middle ground in the debate.

"It doesn't have to be cats versus birds; it can be cats and birds," he said.

The program, to be unveiled this winter, would bring together animal control officials with birds and cat advocacy groups to share information on known locations of endangered birds and cat colonies. Cats that are near endangered birds could be relocated, while others deemed to be sufficiently far away could continue undisturbed.

Cat lovers across the country are keeping watch so strays aren't sent to shelters, where most are euthanized if they can't find a home.

"We're intent on protecting all species," said Jessica Frohman with Alley Cat Allies in Bethesda, Md. "But birds are not somehow more important than cats."