By Bryan Stevens
Thomas A. Kidd contacted me in late June with a comment about one of my favorite summer birds. “I have lived in the City of Columbia, Tennessee, for 37 years and until this spring and early summer I had never seen the gray catbird,” he wrote. “They are very pretty birds that I enjoy watching from my kitchen window at the bird bath.”
Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.
They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.
Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.
They are related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find them just different enough to warrant placing the gray catbird in its own genus. A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. Both catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa. Some of these birds include the ochre-breasted catbird, tooth-billed catbird and spotted catbird.
The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Nevertheless, experts have documented that the gray catbird can produce more than 100 different sounds. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.
While not generally considered a bird to visit feeders, people have succeeded in attracting catbirds to feeders designed to offer grape jelly or orange slices. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees is the best means of attracting these fascinating birds to your yard and garden. It’s also best not to clear away brush and tangles from your yard if you wish to attract catbirds. These are shy birds and will avoid areas that are too open and spacious.