For the Birds Radio Program: Catbirds

Original Air Date: June 24, 1987

Why isn’t it good news if you’re sitting in the catbird’s seat?

Duration: 3′24″


Retaped for 1987

(Recording of a Gray Catbird)

The sunbelt may have its mockingbird, but we Duluthians have a bird every bit as interesting, and from the same mimicking family–the Gray Catbird.

Catbirds get their name from their habit of meowing as they sing. But they don’t limit their imitations to cats. They can mimic other species of birds, musical instruments, car horns, chain saws, children playing–just about anything that strikes their fancy. They string all the sounds together in a jumble to produce their song:

(Recording of a Gray Catbird)

The mewing calls may frighten away some of a catbird’s enemies, and imitations of hawks, owls, and human voices may do the same thing. But ornithologists don’t have the foggiest idea why catbirds and mockingbirds mimic other species of songbirds–much less chainsaws. There doesn’t seem to be any evolutionary advantage to this habit. It wouldn’t sound scientific to say that they do it just for the heck of it, but that may well be the truth of the matter.

The catbird is a long, slender bird, a bit smaller than a robin. Its body is solid gray, with a black cap and a long, black tail. If you get a close look at one, you might notice the rusty feathers at the base of the tail. Catbirds can be found in every neighborhood in Duluth– often singing in treetops. They usually build their nests quite low to the ground, but, like most birds, are secretive about their nesting habits. A lot of reasonably observant people who never notice a catbird in the yard find a nest right there in the lilac bush after the leaves fall.

Catbirds are feisty. If a snake, raccoon, or other predator comes near, catbirds will display ferociously, and sometimes even attack. They aren’t much afraid of people–I’ve watched my children lunching at one end of the picnic table while a catbird ate at the other end.

Catbirds are attracted to yards with honeysuckle, mulberries, crab apples, and just about any other fruiting trees or shrubs. In the wild, they eat a bit more plant than animal food, but they do eat lots of insects and grubs. If you’d like to attract catbirds, you can feed them oranges, jelly, sugar water, suet, peanuts, or bread.

Catbirds are a pleasure for most people–they’re easily tamed, their song is pleasing, and they don’t have many bad habits. But they do have a lot of enemies–hawks, jays and crows, grackles, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, and snakes, to name just a few. Many catbirds crash into tall buildings and TV towers while migrating, and many more are run over by cars. Although one banded catbird lived at least ten years, most never reach adulthood, and many adults die before they are two. So if someone tells you that you’re sitting in the catbird’s seat, you’d be wise to find out just how literally he’s speaking–you might be in big trouble. But you’ll never hear a catbird bemoan its fate. As they say, “Birds do not sing because they have an answer. Birds sing because they have a song.”

(Recording of a Gray Catbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”