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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Gray catbirds live blissfully in our backyard thickets

Few things are as pleasing as waking up on spring mornings to the beautiful song of a male catbird. The song, one of the most soothing birdsongs anywhere, is musically rich and varied.

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A gray catbird at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. (Andy Rathbun | St. Paul Pioneer Press)
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Few things are as pleasing as waking up on spring mornings to the beautiful song of a male catbird. The song, one of the most soothing birdsongs anywhere, is musically rich and varied.

Catbirds belong to the same clan that another, and much more accomplished, master of imitation belongs: the northern mockingbird.

Some 11 species in all, the gray catbird is a mimid and a fitting member of the avian family Mimidae, though only one other, the brown thrasher, regularly occurs in northern Minnesota.

Of all mimids, gray catbirds are the most widely distributed species. The handsome black-capped and black-tailed all-gray bird with rufous-colored undertail coverts can be found over most of the lower 48 states, including much of Canada.

About eight to nine inches long with nearly a foot-long wingspan, gray catbirds are commonly grouped as medium-sized, long-tailed passerines or perching birds.

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But what endears and interests me most about gray catbirds is two-fold: the appealing song of the male bird and both sexes’ behavior of remaining close to the ground and hidden within the understory.

Regarding the catbird song, it can be described as a warbling of sorts and mixed with a collection of chips, chats, squeaks, and rasping notes.

There is arguably an imitating quality to the male catbird song, though I’m hard-pressed in picking out anything remarkably familiar or otherwise copied calls. Still, and wonderfully so, the musical diversity contained in the catbird song is very agreeable to ones’ ears.

As well, the somewhat secretive nature of this relatively shy bird is just as noteworthy. Where most songbirds frequently sing their territorial tunes from conspicuous perches, it is frequently the case that male catbirds choose less observable roosts from which to sing.

Thus, you may very well hear the curious song, albeit in its rather subdued delivery, and you may believe that it comes from much higher aloft but alas, you would be fooled by the bird’s ventriloquist-like song and would, therefore, need to gaze down into the shrubbery to find him.

To be sure, the gray catbird’s chosen niche is within the confines of thickets where the bird not only sings from but spends most of its days, too. It helps explain why gray catbirds are such successful and obviously adaptable birds.

Thriving nearly everywhere in semi-open areas that include dense shrub growth, especially near human dwellings, gray catbirds are at home in suitable urban habitats as they are in rural environments.

Within these environs, catbirds seek out a host of insects and small fruits to eat. And like many other birds of the understory, catbirds also forage for food on the ground, scratching leaf litter as they search.

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It was perhaps on the ground where catbirds discovered another fascinating behavior: anting. Other birds, such as northern flickers, also “ant."

Often choosing active anthills, catbirds will sometimes perch on an ant mound and peck at it or create some other stir to agitate the ants. The resident ants, which perceive the catbird as a threat, begin basically attacking the intruder, crawling over its body, including underneath its feathers.

It's believed that anting helps to control external parasites, in addition to soothing skin irritations. Moreover, formic acid contained inside ants' bodies is thought to work like a sort-of pesticide on the birds' skin. And not only that, the tens of dozens of ants pouring all over an anting bird provides plenty of protein-rich food, too.

No mention of the gray catbird should exclude the bird’s telltale cat-like call. Its hoarse but softly delivered mew is more than likely its claim to fame as an affiliate of mimid birds.

Aggressive birds that fiercely defend their nest and young from predators, gray catbirds are also known to destroy the eggs of brown-headed cowbirds that are purposely laid in their nests by female cowbirds.

Indeed, gray catbirds, secretive mimics of a host of sounds, living blissfully in our own backyard thickets, are sure to please as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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