The Gray Catbird—a Natural Mimic
“It seems like there’s a cat in the bushes, but I think it’s a new species.” That’s the report from our daughter, who is learning her birds. She knows chickadee and blue jay, cardinal and crow. She’s seen an eastern screech owl and two short-eared owls. And a merlin. Nice birds. But the phantom cat in the bushes has piqued her curiosity. She gets closer, but the bird goes quiet, blends into the shadows.
We wait a minute, silent, like cats stalking their own prey. Then the bird appears. Gray catbirds are, well, pretty darn gray. From bill to tail, at least on the upper portion of body, they are as dark as storm clouds. On the undertail and vent, they reveal a bit of color: a russet brown. A black strip bisects the head. Otherwise gray. Darker than a mockingbird. Richer than a robin. Unsurprisingly like a gray kitten I once befriended. Add the species to our daughter’s life list.
Catbirds are migratory in our region, returning to western Pennsylvania from the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, or even Mexico and Central America beginning in April. There are resident populations along the Atlantic Seaboard as well. When they make it to Pittsburgh, they may take up summer residence in backyards, thickets or anywhere were human intrusions have made way for tangles to grow. There, they’ll eat beetles, moths, caterpillars, and other insects and bugs, though they are also fruit lovers and can eat their fill of berries. Gardeners see them as mixed blessings.
Of course, catbirds are here to raise families. They do so in twiggy nests of bark, straw, grass and mud. As many as half a dozen turquoise green eggs can be found in the nests, incubated about two weeks. Nestlings hatch blind and downy, altricial in scientific terms, and fly the nest 10 days later or so. Catbirds can raise two or three broods a summer, but by late October they are all gone, southbound once again.
In voice, catbirds are mimics. They string together the songs of other species to improvise their own new tunes. Whenever we hear avian babble or gibberish, we now think catbird, waiting for the diagnostic “meow” that comes at the end of their sustained riffs. Males are the singing stars, but like some other North American species, females can sing, too, mirroring back, in quieter tones, what they hear the guys belting out.
To my family, that cat in the bush is a welcome sound of spring and summer. When we see the last ones head out for warmer climes, we know fall has arrived, a time to seek out other, more hardy species. But we know the catbird will be back, and we hope for one last glimpse even when the meow comes from a creature with fur instead of feathers.
A final note: Cats cause massive mortality among avian wildlife, killing billions of birds annually in North America. Read up on this important conservation issue.
Email me your avian encounters, photos or questions to PQonthewing@gmail.com.