A garbled song at dusk. A sneezy mew in the shady forest. A flick of the tail in dense undergrowth. You move forward, passing these seemingly insignificant instances in search of something brighter and sweeter. Little do you realize, who you are leaving behind is perhaps the most remarkable of all.
Understated yet enigmatic, the Grey Catbird ( Dumetella carlolinensis ) is a soft smoky grey with and ash-colored tail and cap, deep brown eyes, and rich rusty chestnut undertail coverts. Growing up to 9.4 inches in length, they are medium-sized songbirds—but don’t let their size fool you. The Catbird’s quirky nature and endearing notes make for quite an interesting neighbor. Having adapted beautifully to the expanding urban environment, they make their nests in gardens and yards from the northwest to the southeast United States, and the southwestern portion of Canada.
Human development, while extremely harmful to some species, has instead created habitat for Catbirds, who like tangled undergrowth and dense shrubs. Deforestation can cause patches of scrubby regrowth, perfect for Catbirds. They can be found foraging for insects and berries near disturbed roadsides, fence lines, and the edges of clearings. While most songbirds eat a diet heavy in insects, the Catbird eats many more berries when the fruit is ripe and so has a wider range of food to choose from. (This can be exasperating for bird banders, however, for when a Catbird relieves himself, as they frequently do when being handled, the product is a deep purple color that stains clothing!) On their wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast and central-to-south America, they eat almost nothing but fruits.
The adaptability of the Catbird is also apparent in their nesting strategy, which is to build multiple nests a season to ensure survival of their children. Their well-hidden nests lie deep in thickets where predators like cats and snakes cannot find them. (Please keep your cats indoors to reduce the risk to birds of all species!)
Catbirds also confuse humans who would like to find them, for these birds are in the family Mimidae, which includes mockingbirds and thrashers—birds notorious for their ability to mimic other species’ sounds. Often heard but unseen, Catbirds produce individual variations on a jumbled, gargling song full of both buzzy and sweet notes. Their general species tune is interrupted by hundreds of mimicked phrases of other birds, frogs, and machinery. Unlike mockingbirds, however, Catbirds mimic in short bursts and the borrowed phrases are intertwined with the Catbird’s general song and sometimes cannot be completely distinguished from the rest of the song.
Why mimic, though? What purpose would copying other species’ voices serve? The answer is astounding: In order to survive, a male Catbird must find enough food, avoid predators, find a mate, establish and defend his territory, and migrate twice a year. This takes an astonishing amount of energy, and so many birds do not live very long. To deviate from any of these tasks could result in a loss of energy and could be fatal. However, successful males have energy to spare, for their territory is established and they are finding enough sustenance. This is when they listen. This is when they learn.
The more successful a Catbird is, the more time he has to spend listening to and learning other sounds, which he then incorporates into his own breeding song. This is an auditory signal to potential mates that he is a good suitor: successful and smart. Interestingly, if he has traveled around and learned birdsong from other regions outside of his current territory, it will be reflected in his song and therefore shows the females that he is experienced.
The Catbird sings before dawn and at dusk, their rich and melancholy voices greeting the day and then putting it to sleep. Their tentative mews uttered softly from hidden perches offer a sweet, questioning companion to the lonely hiker.
In their plush grey feathers, with muted tones of buff and taupe, and their large dark eyes, with glinting slivers of burnt umber in the iris, there is poetry. They stay hidden until it is time to be seen, until they are confident enough in their observer. When binoculars meet the gaze of a thin grey being barely visible in the brush, there is something about even the quickest of glances that stirs the heart. Abundant the Grey Catbird may be, but to really see one, and to have them see you, is an experience few and far in between.
*Please note*: This essay was originally written for the Ohio Young Birders Club's Golden-Wings newsletter. Please consider joining if you are a young birder in the Ohio region, or making a donation to the club if you are able to! It is a wonderful group of young naturalists ages 12-18 who are passionate about birds and nature, and are on their way to do big things for conservation! Please help the cause and support these amazing folks! Thanks!