We were thrilled to discover our old feathered friend, the Gray Catbird, has made his way back to our yard yet another year after spending his winter south of the U.S. border.
Luigi, as we’ve named him, is quite a handsome bird and he brought two other catbird friends with him, and they enjoy running among the leaf litter under our pine trees.
It made me stop to think about how lucky we were to have this beautiful tropical long-distance migrant and his avian cohorts choose this backyard to be nesting in this summer.
Luigi is not banded, but chances are he’s the same catbird that was here last summer.
Catbirds and other bird species return to the same habitat patch to nest year after year.
We’re hoping this bird, and his feathered friends are fortunate enough to survive the long migration from one season to the next.
Meaning Behind the Name
The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is often found in thickets and belongs to the genus Dumetella, which in Latin means ‘small thicket.’
They are relatives of thrashers and mockingbirds, sharing that group’s vocal abilities, able to copy the sounds of other birds and incorporate them into their own song.
Gray Catbirds are songbirds of medium size with long legs and wide rounded wings.
You can’t miss their rounded long black tail with a distinct rust-colored patch beneath its tail.
Catbirds are a slate gray color, with a black cap on their heads, and a straight and thin beak.
Gray Catbirds are best known for producing a cat-like mew.
These birds mimic the songs of other birds and rearrange them creating their own song.
When listening to their songs, you’ll find they don’t follow a pattern and can be described as bird jazz.
The Gray catbird’s syrinx (being a double instrument located where the trachea separates into two bronchi) is unusual in that both sides can operate independently, meaning they can sing using two voices at the same time.
They can produce over 100 different sorts of sounds, and their songs can last for up to 10 minutes long.
Catbird’s use different tones and notes in their songs to communicate their presence, lay claim to their territory, and attract mates.
Walking in the neighborhood, we hear the catbird’s songs drowning out other bird’s song.
But that’s okay, we love hearing our tropical friends sing.
Like Their Privacy
Gray Catbirds prefer a habitat of thick shrubs, tangled vines and bushes and dense thickets of trees.
On the yard, they enjoy their privacy away from other birds and pop out for quick appearances for food.
We’ve also seen them in overgrown hedges, and along the roadside and in residential areas.
Although these birds seem skittish, they don’t fly away when you approach them.
At times we feel like the catbirds enjoy observing us, and at times are trying to communicate with us as they enthusiastically hop around back and forth branch to the feeder.
Almost daring us to play a shell game to guess what they are going to do next.
Catbird Dining Cuisine
Gray Catbirds are omnivorous, eating mostly insects (ants, beetles, caterpillars, flies, and moths) and spiders, also fruits (raspberries and blueberries).
When eating on the ground, these birds toss aside leaves with their beaks rather than using their feet to scratch.
Until they fledge, nestlings are almost exclusively fed insect food, then they start to eat fruit.
Catbirds Love Fruit
We’ve pampered our catbirds with organic strawberries and raisins. They also enjoy the orange slices left for the Baltimore Orioles.
Since these birds like fruit, catbirds can cause significant damage to gardens if you’re growing grapes, raspberries, strawberries, and cherries.
So use caution if cultivating these fruits.
Gray catbirds are monogamous and have only one mate.
Pairs form soon after birds arrive at the breeding grounds in spring, and courtship displays begin.
The male sings, then pauses to rush off after the female.
He struts and wheels about with wings lowered and tail erect, showing off the chestnut patch on his undertail coverts.
Mating season for catbirds is from April to early August, and birds usually produce two broods each season.
The female constructs a bulky open nest 4 feet off the ground, using twigs, scraps, and bits of paper.
Female catbirds lay 1 to 5 turquoise eggs and incubation is by the female, for 12 to 14 days, while her mate stands guard nearby, occasionally feeding her.
The young are helpless when they hatch, partially covered by dark down.
They are fed by both parents and leave the nest when they are 10 to 11 days old.
Parents will continue to feed their chicks for up to 12 more days.
Gray Catbirds become reproductively mature when they are one year old.
Catbird’s nests often have the eggs of the dreaded Brown-headed cowbirds laid in them.
However, the Gray Catbird is one of several species that can learn to recognize the eggs of the cowbird and push them out of the nest.
A Day in the Life of a Catbird
Gray Catbirds are diurnal and migratory, though they migrate at night.
Flocks of these birds range from 10 to 15 catbirds.
Catbirds communicate through visual means, using their head and feathers, and their songs and calls.
The male sings from high perches declaring his territory or challenging an intruder by singing his song loudly, singing more quietly near the nest, where the female may sing back to the male.
Catbirds Show Their Claws
A Gray Catbird responds aggressively towards predators, flashing their wings and tail, and calling.
Catbirds may attack and peck at predators near the nest.
During the breeding season and winter, mating pairs are territorial, with males defending a small area around their nest.
In winter, the males and females defend separate territories.
We hope you’re as lucky as we are to have a pair of beautiful catbirds nesting in your backyard this summer.
It’s fun to watch their antics, hear their songs, and watch your fruit offerings disappear in the blink of an eye.
If you’re fortunate, maybe you’ll have a group of catbirds.
And for the record, a group of catbirds is called a “mewing” or a “seat” of catbirds.
If you want to learn more about the Gray Catbird, we encourage you to visit Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.