For the Birds Radio Program: Catbirds

Original Air Date: Aug. 8, 1994

Today Laura Erickson talks about the closest thing we Northlanders have to a mockingbird—the Gray Catbird. 3:29

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The sunbelt has its mockingbird, but we in the Northland have a bird that imitates sounds just as well–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 have long puzzled about why catbirds and mockingbirds mimic other species of songbirds–much less chainsaws. The current theory is that the more a male has seen in the world, the more kinds of sounds he can imitate. Females apparently use a male’s songs to judge how experienced he is, and thus how fit he will be as a parent.

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 right in the heart of a city as long as there are some brushy tangles for hiding and nesting and a tall tree for singing, but they seem to becoming less common in these marginal habitats. They usually build their nests quite low to the ground, but are very secretive about their nesting habits. A lot of reasonably observant people never notice the catbird nest in their yard until after the leaves fall.

Catbirds especially are attracted to honeysuckle, mulberries, crab apples, and other fruiting trees and shrubs. They eat a bit more plant than animal food, but do eat a lot of insects and grubs. If you’d like to lure catbirds out into the open, try feeding them oranges, jelly, sugar water, suet, peanuts, or bread. They are feisty. If a snake, raccoon, or other predator comes near, catbirds will display ferociously, and sometimes even attack. And they aren’t much afraid of people–when she was 3 and 4, my daughter used to eat lunch at one end of the picnic table while a catbird sipped jelly at the other end.

Catbirds bring pleasure to a lot of 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–cats, hawks, jays and crows, grackles, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, and snakes, to name just a few. Many catbirds crash into tall buildings and TV towers as they migrate, and many more are run over by cars. Although one banded catbird lived at least ten years, most never see their first birthday, and few live beyond 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.

(Recording of a Gray Catbird)

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