Wild Profile: Meet the gray catbird

A grey catbird perched against a background of thin branches Photo by Brian E. Kushner/Shutterstock

No matter how inept you think you are at identifying birdsong, you can probably recognize the call of the gray catbird. It sounds like a cat. At least some of the time. Catbirds produce such a distinctive “mew” that Jacob Studer, the author of Studer’s Popular Ornithology once wrote “One unacquainted with his notes would conclude that some vagrant kitten had gotten bewildered among the briers and was in want of assistance.”

But the gray catbird is a mimic, like thrashers and mockingbirds. Most birds have their own distinctive calls that they use to attract mates or keep other birds away from their territory. But catbirds and other sneaky mimics copy different species instead. They can even mimic other animal sounds, and non-animal noises. Ornithologists have observed the catbird copy the croak of a chorus frog and produce mechanical sounds.

To attract lady catbirds, though, males will often sing for 10 minutes straight. They string together parts of other bird calls into a long, slightly raspy and jumbled call. Not terribly melodic, perhaps, but it is appealing to females because it suggests the male is a survivor. It means that he’s stayed alive long enough to learn lots of songs and sounds.

How many of these bird calls do you know?

Gray catbirds tend to keep low to the ground, hanging out below small tree thickets, tangled vines, and dense shrubs. That’s where, in the summer, you might find them (or hear them). They hunt for ground-dwelling bugs—ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars—or feed on poison ivy and the berries of low-growing plants. Females also build their nests low, usually on hidden branches about four feet off the ground.

Not only are catbirds clever mimics, according to experts, they’re one of the few birds that have apparently learned to recognize the eggs of the parasitic cowbird. They then know to kick the imposter eggs out of their nests (after a mother cowbird tries to sneak them in). What a smart kitty!

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