By Ericha Nix
Photo by Alan Vernon
You could have a copycat bird in your back yard, but you might never know it. Not only is a gray catbird a master of voices, it’s also very secretive and enjoys staying hidden.
The gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is a common backyard bird species. Although a poor mimicker, this species imitates the songs of other birds and occasionally mimics the sounds of crickets, frogs or a squeaky wheel.
It is the only member of the family Mimidae that makes a distinctive mewing call that resembles that of a cat mewing; hence, the name catbird.
The gray catbird is a common and widespread species found throughout the United States although numbers may be declining in the southeastern states. The gray catbird breeds across southern Canada, southward to northeastern Arizona and eastward to northern Florida and winters along the East Coast southward to Central America and the Caribbean.
This songbird is of medium size and has a slender body. It is approximately 7.75 inches in length and has a wingspan of 11-12 inches. At first glance, the bird’s plumage may seem to be entirely gray. In fact, it has a slate gray body, reddish orange tail coverts, and a black cap and tail. Other characteristics include a long slender beak, long black legs and black eyes. Both sexes are similar and look alike.
The gray catbird song is made up of a long slow series of warbled notes ranging from squeaks to whistles, poorly imitated songs of other birds and the raspy “mew” call. A distinguishing characteristic of the gray catbird as opposed to other members of the family Mimidae such as the mockingbird, is that the catbird does not repeat its song notes.
A mockingbird may repeat phrases three to four times, but the gray catbird sings most phrases only once. Other common names that you might know the gray catbird by are the black mockingbird, black-capped thrush, cat flycatcher, chicken bird, or slate-colored mockingbird.
The gray catbird is a secretive and inquisitive bird by nature and occupies habitats of low dense vine thickets along streams, roadsides and forest edges. It is also readily found in areas of hedgerows in backyards and gardens. Due to the secretive nature of the gray catbird, it is more often heard than seen.
The diet of the gray catbird consists mostly of insects that include crickets, grasshoppers, beetles – especially Japanese beetles – and many other insects found on vegetation or off the ground. Small fruits like berries, when in season, are also important food items.
When the male arrives to his breeding area, he uses his loud song to proclaim his territory and a softer song is used when at the nest or fighting off an intruder. A bulky cup nest made of twigs, grasses, leaves, pine straw and weed stems lined with hair, rootlets and fine grasses is built in dense shrubbery, thickets or coniferous trees.
Usually, two to six glossy, dark greenish-blue eggs are laid from May to August. Eggs are incubated for about 12-15 days and young are born helpless and somewhat covered with brown down. Young fledge when about 10-15 days old and the adults usually raise two broods per year.
The brown-headed cowbird has been known to lay eggs in a gray catbird’s nest. The female catbird is usually able to recognize the foreign egg from her own and throws the cowbird egg out of the nest. Few gray catbirds have ever been seen incubating a cowbird egg.
The next time you are out in your back yard during the spring and summer months, stop and listen for that distinctive mewing or check out a loaded mulberry tree or blackberry thicket to try and observe this unique backyard inhabitant. You will not be disappointed.
--Ericha Nix / Certified Wildlife Biologist / Alabama Department of Conservation, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries