Of Gray Catbirds

The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) was one of the birds I could identify before becoming a birder. I may have been in my early teens when my father pointed out their mewing in the garden front of our house. I liked nature and was interested in environmental conservation. But I knew about birds as much as the average non-birdwdatcher.

Oh, is that what that is? I took the time to listen. I loved cats (and I still am a cat-person). The idea of a bird sounding like a cat amused me. Since then, I would just happen to hear them around the property, like the blue jay or (American) crow. The time would be late summer or early autumn, when the cool stretching of darkness was more apparent. They symbolized the transition from warmth to cold, from green to fiery colors. The mews sounded melancholic. The catbirds were crying, but for who, for what?

Catbirds are common, robin-sized birds. They are a spring and summer resident in the United States – east of the Rockies – and southern Canada. They winter mostly in Central America and the southeastern U.S. coast. Nowadays, starting with the new millennium, they have become hardier birds and are overwintering. Even in Westchester County.

Their plumage is uniformly slate gray (lovely color), with a black cap and rusty undertail coverts. They have beady black eyes and a relatively short black beak. Their long tails characteristically wag while they perch. Catbirds are a part of the mimid family, related to  Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers. They eat insects and fruits. They especially berries, including poison ivy berries.

Catbirds are best known for their mew calls, which I hear (as a birder now) all spring and summer, especially nearing fall migration. In early spring, just after arriving to claim nesting territory, they sing. They produce a loud and long string of notes – simultaneously musical and rough – with non-repetitive, jarring phrasing. Every year, when they return to nest in various spots of our yard, one would sing in the flowering dogwood adjacent to the deck at dusk. My mother doesn’t like their singing much because they are a “racket.”

Catbirds also produce a crackle call.To me, it sounds like electricity in power lines snapping. Whenever they sound this call, I usually see them moving quickly in the underbrush. And, like the mockingbird, catbirds can imitate other birds, and even tree frogs and mechanical sounds. (I’ve personally never heard them imitate anything.)

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing the catbirds mew. I like to mew back at catbirds like one does with actual cats. But unlike the feline mammal, they don’t respond.

Sometimes they still sound melancholic; late summer will create that biased mood. For some reason, the catbirds’ mews add to the forlorn feeling, joining with the departing birds and the decay and the cold and the darkness. Other times, generally, they sound like what any bird wants to ensure: “Here I am – this is my territory now, so go away.” I don’t often see catbirds mewing. They stay hidden. So they could be adults or juveniles. They could be practicing. They could be claiming territory in case they decide to winter over. Or they simply want to be noise-makers.

Catbirds keep to wherever they find dense vegetation low to the ground: forests, suburban backyard gardens, large city/town parks. For this, they are known as a shy and secretive birds. But I would sooner point to warblers for more accurately fitting that description. Once warblers hide, they hide. Catbirds are more outgoing – not gregariously so, but curious and enthusiastic about their surroundings. If the timing is right, and it usually is, you can see them fly from bush to bush, shrub to shrub, tree to tree, or even briefly catch them flitting around in the vegetation. They easily respond to pishing. They reveal themselves to check out what’s going on. They come out in the open bright-eyed, tail flicking more than a phoebe’s. If I don’t see or hear catbirds while birding in spring and summer, I would be surprised. They are common enough for one to think, Another one to tick off on the checklist…

Catbirds can also be a little aggressive. They have been found to destroy Brown-headed Cowbird eggs laid in their nests. (Birders would cheer at this since other songbirds, especially ones critical of becoming endangered (mostly our fault, but the cowbirds are no help) who would not recognize the difference between their own eggs and cowbird eggs.)

A couple years, I saw a catbird land on my backyard deck with a half of a turquoise eggshell in its beak. It settled the eggshell on the deck, ate the contents, and then flew away. I went out onto the deck and found the half cleaned off. More recently, I have tried to find sources to back up what I observed, but no luck. And now I am more unsure if the egg were a robin’s or even a catbird’s – both are similar in color.

As of this posting, the time is late August. I have been hearing the catbirds mew more frequently over the past couple weeks. Once again, they act as heralds of late summer. Fall migration for songbirds has started. The sun sets before eight o’clock. Evenings are cold. Catbirds aren’t trying to sound forlorn, crying for the loss of light and warmth.

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