By Bryan Stevens
The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.
One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.
Your first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when you hear what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, you may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.
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.
However, in a mood that appears to swing with the seasons, gray catbirds emerge again in late summer and early fall when they feast on such fruit as elderberries and wild cherries while making their whiny cacophony of calls from any tangle or thicket where they happen to be.
The catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella. The name is based upon the Latin term dūmus, which roughly translated means “thorny thicket.” Dumetella, in turn, means “dweller in the thornbushes” or “small bird of the thornbushes.” It’s a rather apt description for a bird fond of habitats often dominated by thorny vegetation. Older common names for the gray catbird included cat thrush and slate-colored mockingbird.
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.
The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. 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.