Aug 7, 2019 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2019

Gray Catbird: Some Bird Names are Just Perfect

If you live in southern Canada or the eastern two-thirds of the United States and have a thicket in your yard, you may well have a pair of catbirds in summer.

A lot of bird watchers and non-bird watchers alike have spent time peering into a thicket, trying to persuade the poor lost kitten pitifully mewing in the brush to come out. Even those who are familiar with the catbird have been fooled at times. The soft mew of the gray catbird is so realistic that sometimes the brain just won't accept that it is not a cat.

Why the catbird should have a call so like that of a small cat is not clear. The mew was part of the catbird's repertoire long before the first settlers and the first domestic cats came to these shores, and the call has little resemblance to the vocalizations of the native cats that were here. Perhaps it is just accident—one more note in an extensive vocabulary that the gray catbird possesses. The catbird's closest relatives are the thrashers and the mockingbirds, two groups noted for the variety of their calls. And perhaps it serves a yet undiscovered purpose.

If you live in southern Canada or the eastern two-thirds of the United States and have a thicket in your yard, you may well have a pair of catbirds in summer. They favor low, thick brush as a place to hide not just themselves, but also their nest. Unlike brown thrashers, they do not like hedgerows, but if there is a low wet area close by they are in catbird heaven.

Note the rusty red of a gray catbird's undertail coverts.

A Fitting Name

Gray catbirds are not gaudy. They are, as the name reveals, gray, somber-looking birds, much like men in mourning dress, an effect topped off by the small black cap. It is only when you see the undertail coverts, the crissum, the vent area, that there is a break in the pattern. The deep rusty-red patch under the tail can be hard to see, but when it shows there is no doubt that you are looking at a catbird.

The nest is a slightly bulky affair, usually less than seven feet above the ground. It is well hidden in the thickest parts of low plants, and native grapes are a favored nest site. The construction is mostly done by the female. Clutches are most often three or four eggs, and incubation takes about 13 days. The young fledge in another 11 or 12 days. Both parents work hard to keep the young fed with insects. Second broods are fairly common, and sometimes a third is attempted.

Both parents respond to intruders with a variety of scolding, cackling, and mewing notes, and if you are too persistent or visit too often the birds are apt to abandon the nest and try again somewhere else.

Getting a Look

Catbirds are far more often heard than seen. They are skulkers, rarely feeding in the open, and they rarely visit feeders. That is because they rely solely on insects during the spring and summer. In fall, fruit, especially berries, becomes an increasing part of their diet, but they are not seed eaters most of the time. Getting a good look at a catbird usually requires patience or pishing. They are inquisitive and respond quickly to pishing—a sound made slowly, mostly by the lips and breath—hopping up on to the edge of a shrub to watch you for a minute or two before diving back into the denser part of the brush.

It's rare for a catbird to sing for more than a minute or two without including at least a few of its diagnostic mewing notes.

Distinctive Song

If you have a pair of catbirds in your yard you probably know it. The males are not shy about singing, and even late in the season they frequently feel the urge to sound off, if not with a full song, at least with a few notes. The song can be confused with that of the brown thrasher or even a mockingbird at times, but it is rare for a catbird to sing for more than a minute or two without including at least a few of its diagnostic mewing notes. Although they have been reported to mimic other birds at times, most of their notes and songs are their own.

The lack of bright colors has led some observers to call the gray catbird dull, but if you look closely at one you are struck by the subtle variations in the tone of the grays, the almost elegant black cap, and the striking contrast of the undertail. A catbird may not jolt you at first glance, but it bears a closer look. All you have to do is keep chasing that kitten hiding in the bush.

About Eirik A.T. Blom

Eirik A.T. "Rick" Blom was one of North America’s leading bird experts and a prolific writer. He contributed to the National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and was a long-time contributing editor for Bird Watcher’s Digest. He died in 2002.

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