For the Birds Radio Program: Gray Catbird
One of my first great delights when I started birding in 1975 was hearing a cat-like mew from dense shrubbery, thinking to myself, “that must be a catbird!,” searching around for a few minutes, and discovering that I was right. I finally saw the slender gray bird with a black cap and rusty undertail coverts. Of course, there wasn’t a single moment that I saw all that at once—I’d get a look at the bird’s face and cap, then the tail and undertail feathers, then the middle, but never the complete catbird, hidden in foliage. It didn’t matter—it was thrilling to see how skillfully the bird hid, and extremely gratifying for me as such a new birder to realize I could put together pieces to identify the whole bird. I particularly loved learning that the catbird’s genus name, Dumetella, means “small thicket,” exactly the habitat I found my first bird in.
That was in May. I got to see catbirds many more times that year. For some reason, seeing or hearing this slender, quietly beautiful bird gave me more pleasure than I got from most birds. No single experience stands out in my memory the way seeing my lifer did, but the week Russ and I spent in Port Wing, Wisconsin, around Labor Day, came close. Everywhere we went there were catbirds, mewing and making other calls, skulking about but occasionally coming right out into the open where I could see the entire bird all at once. I started associating catbirds with the fruits of late summer. After we moved to Duluth in 1981 and I started spending many of my August and September days at Hawk Ridge, this impression became firmly entrenched in my mind. Hawk Ridge is rich in various fruiting trees and shrubs—a catbird magnet. When I arrived before the crowds, I never felt, since there were always catbirds to keep me company.
Gray Catbirds are feisty. They’ve been observed destroying eggs and nestlings of several different species including pewees, Chipping, Song, and Vesper Sparrows, and robins. Ornithologists aren’t clear about whether they are competing with these species or simply eating their plunder—in at least one case, a catbird was documented eating Chipping Sparrow eggs. Gray Catbirds have also been documented chasing or fighting with 33 different species of small and medium-size songbirds, and the catbird seems usually to be the instigator of these squabbles.
Catbirds are one of the few birds that recognize and throw out cowbird eggs. This is a learned behavior. In rare cases, a catbird may misidentify the cowbird eggs as her own and throw out the wrong ones, but overall catbirds hardly ever raise cowbirds. Cowbirds retaliate against most hosts that throw out cowbird eggs by destroying their eggs and young. Perhaps one of the reasons catbirds deal well with parasitism is that they’re predisposed to chase away other birds. When the female leaves the nest, the male stands guard within a few meters until she returns.
Catbirds nest two or occasionally even three times a season, but are slowly but significantly declining. They should overall benefit from high gas prices, if people would only figure out how much gas we save when we slow down. Especially this time of year, catbirds are frequently killed by cars because of their habit of flying across open areas, including roads, at windshield height—one long term study along the Alabama coast regularly found several dead catbirds per kilometer of road during peak fall migration. It’s a tragic and meaningless loss of a fine bird. I hope all the catbirds you see are living ones.