Recently on a beautiful summer evening as the shadows grew longer across the backyard while I sat and enjoyed a little respite on the deck, a gray catbird flew from a thicket of willows and up into the mid-canopy of a nearby mature bur oak tree. Almost immediately the bird, obviously a male, began singing.
One of the most easily recognizable and interesting bird songs to listen to, the song of the gray catbird is a delight to be sure. Boisterously delivered, the long musical song, which is sometimes sung for as long as 10 minutes at a time, is as much catbird as it is other species of birds. Indeed, catbirds belong to the same family as mockingbirds and thrashers belong to, Mimidae (think mimicry. Mimics).
Gray catbirds are avian impressionists, but to the untrained ear, many birders might not pick up on the fact that what they’re listening to is a practiced repertoire comprised of a few to many different species of birds, sometimes even non-avian animals such as frogs. As I sat and listened to my catbird on that evening, I was able to distinguish phrases, warbles, and calls from several species of birds including American robin, American goldfinch, rose-breasted grosbeak, house wren, and red-winged blackbird. I’m sure there were other species, too.
For a fascinating audio and visual on the topic of catbird mimicry, check out this link on Cornell’s All About Birds website: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/an-expert-mimic-the-gray- catbird.
Catbirds are named, however, not for their extraordinary songs, but for one of the species’ other distinctive calls, a soft “mwee” or “meeurr” that sounds very much like the meow of a cat. Additional vocalizations include squeaks and chips and other call notes, too.
Unlike most songbirds -- though common among mimids -- both sexes of the gray catbird are identical and no other species of bird is as uniformly gray in coloration. Aside from its black tail, blackish cap, and rufous under-tail coverts, the plumage of gray catbirds is definitely mostly gray.
About the size of a red-winged blackbird, gray catbirds are around 8½ inches long with a wingspan of just under a foot. A somewhat secretive and shy bird, catbirds are often just out of sight softly mewing within thickets as they search for insects and sometimes berries and other fruits when available, including fruits from poison ivy and dogwood.
Typical for most songbirds, the nesting season, from nest construction to egg laying to incubation to rearing young to when the offspring fledge, takes about a month. Females build the nests of sticks and other vegetation mostly by themselves with their mates providing some of the building materials. Nest placement is usually on horizontal branches of various trees and shrubs located in dense thickets.
Catbirds that frequent my backyard choose exactly this type of nesting habitat to nest within. I’ve an area adjacent to the mowed portion of the yard that’s thick with hazel brush, dogwood, willow, cherry, nannyberry, and raspberry. So dense is this thicket that I’ve never tried walking into it. It’s dark, cool, and nearly impenetrable -- a perfect catbird haunt! And every season, without fail, there’s a pair of catbirds nesting in this area.
A curious behavior among many songbirds that include catbirds, is the behavior called “anting.” Catbirds readily engage in this behavior around this time of year by allowing non- biting/stinging ants to crawl onto and under their feathers, sometimes even holding an individual ant in their beak and rubbing their feathers with the insect. Theories abound as to why birds such as catbirds do this, but chief among the guesses are parasite control, relief from skin irritation associated with molting, and food.
The gray catbird, mimics among us, are a special and fascinating songbird. Able to sing songs unlike that of any other bird—yet, paradoxically, so alike that of other birds -- few people will argue that catbirds are one of our most unique and pleasant avian friends as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.