If there are cats in your neighborhood that are friendly and seem to want to live with a human, you can try to trap them and get them adopted. Contact Tompkins County SPCA or your favorite local cat rescuer for advice.
If the cats in your area definitely like their outdoor life and are afraid of humans, they’re probably bona fide feral cats – pretty wild. The trick is to help make their outdoor life more comfortable and safe, and in the winter, that means providing food, water, and shelter. Here’s how to make winter boxes from inexpensive materials. I’m looking for my materials on Swidjit and Freecycle, but I’m not going to wait too long – it’s already pretty cold out. You can make these boxes from rigid styrofoam insulation, plastic tubs, and straw, or even from cardboard and plastic bags. (Something is better than nothing, when you’re a cold, wet cat.) It’s important not to provide cloth bedding, because it gets and stays wet, and can freeze – and a cat can’t burrow into it the way they can with straw. Make your cat shelters big enough so multiple cats can cuddle up inside, but don’t make them too big, or they’ll feel drafty.
Now’s also a good time to ensure the cycle of endless kittens doesn’t start over next spring. Tompkins County SPCA offers free and low-cost spaying / neutering services, and can give you posters to put up in your neighborhood. I’m putting them up at my local bus stop and laundromats. Get posters or an application for assistance from their website.
Once the local ferals are trusting you, you can learn to trap them and get them spayed / neutered. Here’s a video we helped make of our friend from Browncoat Cat Rescue, describing how TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) works, with the help of a trap and a real-live kitty!