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Nature Notes: Gray Catbird

Ed Robinson
August 6, 2020

Our eyes are often drawn to the flashiest creatures around us, and this is particularly true with birds. This explains the ongoing popularity of the Northern cardinal, the indigo bunting and the Baltimore oriole. But birds with more subtle coloring have their own beauty and may have distinct personalities that make them worthy of your observation. The lovely gray catbird is one of these, if you can catch a good look before they dash off into cover.

Gray catbird (photo by Ed Robinson)

Like the pretty tufted titmouse, gray is the predominant color of the catbird, albeit in a darker shade. Most of the body is a sleek mid-gray color, with a black cap on the head, a straight black bill and a long, dark tail. To spice things up, the catbird displays a cinnamon patch under its tail. It is very difficult to distinguish male and female birds by appearance but their behavior during breeding season is quite different. This songbird is medium-sized, about eight inches tall (smaller than a robin).

Some birds seem born to sing and the gray catbird certainly falls in this group. When he arrives in Maine between late March and early May, the male stakes out his territory and begins to sing up a storm. I particularly enjoyed a male who took up residence on the edge of our yard this year. From early morning until dusk he would broadcast his various songs and calls to one and all, hoping to attract a passing female. Once he found a mate, they spent most of their time in thick rhododendrons, flitting about in search of food and avoiding me if I was working in the lawn. This bird avoids open forest, preferring hedges, dense shrubs, small trees and overgrown fields.

The gray catbird is part of the mockingbird and thrasher family known as the Mimidae. Many of them are known for their ability to mimic other birds and small animals. The catbird earned its name due to a call that sounds like the mewing of a cat. But he is capable of a wide range of calls and often bursts forth with a long string of sounds in a nearly continuous flow, hardly seeming to take a breath. At times it seems like you are hearing a blue jay, magpie or even a squirrel.

These little birds are often territorial, making a great deal of noise and flapping their wings to ward off intruders. They have even been observed attacking nests of other species, destroying both eggs and nestlings when provoked.

Gray catbird (photo by Ed Robinson)

Their diet varies, with seeds and fruit making up the bulk of the adult diet. During spring and summer the birds will forage on the ground, flipping over leaves to snatch insects of all sorts. Nestlings are fed almost exclusively on insects due to their high nutrient content of fats and proteins. Catbirds will happily come to your seed feeders and are sometimes observed snatching suet.

As the breeding season kicks in, the males will pursue females actively, singing constantly, posturing on the ground, bowing with wings dropped and raising their tails to show off the cinnamon patch underneath. Once a pair has been formed, they defend their territory together and the male is active in feeding and protecting their young. The female builds her nest of twigs, bark, grasses and soft materials for a lining, choosing a site in deep cover. Her clutch of turquoise green eggs ranges from one to six and she will incubate them for around two weeks. Once hatched, the young remain in the nest for 10 to 11 days before fledging. If conditions are right, the pair may produce a second brood during a season.

Gray catbirds are found throughout the Maritime portions of Canada and as far west as Vancouver. In late summer or early fall they migrate as far south as the Caribbean and Central America. Their migration flights occur mostly at night as they take advantage of favorable winds and celestial navigation. The North American Breeding Bird Survey reports that the gray catbird population is holding its own while so many others are in serious decline. Partners in Flight estimates the global population at 27 million, with nearly 90 percent of those birds spending at least part of the year in the US.

I’ll miss our local catbirds when they are gone south but with luck they will return next April to fill the air with their songs of love.

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.