My backyard is invaded with neighborhood cats, both strays and pets whose owners choose not to keep them indoors. As a result, my feeders don’t get nearly the visitors they used to, and the meow of a cat is much more common than the chirp of a bird these days. (Don’t get me wrong – I love cats and have three indoor kitties myself, but they can be a real nuisance in urban and suburban backyards, where they quickly outnumber and overwhelm the songbirds in the area.) The other day, though, the loud “mew” sound I assumed was a cat was quickly followed by a trill of other bird calls and songs, and I realized I had a Gray Catbird hanging around.
In much of the country, the Gray Catbird is a summer bird, seen from about May to October. In the Southeast, where I live, the Gray Catbird makes its appearance in winter when it migrates south to escape the cold weather. Their winter range includes the Gulf Coast of the U.S., the Caribbean, Mexico, and most of Central America. In the spring, they return north to most of the U.S. and southern Canada, except areas west of the Rockies. (See a range map here.)
The Gray Catbird, as its name implies, is mostly gray in color, but it has a few features that make it easier to identify. It has a black cap on the top of its head, helping distinguish it from its fellow mimic, the Northern Mockingbird. It also has a patch of rusty red feathers under its tail, which mark it obviously as a catbird if you’re lucky enough to get a glimpse of them.
Gray Catbirds often hang out in thickets of shrubbery, rather than perched high on treetops like mockingbirds. In fact, their scientific name, Dumetella carolinensis, roughly translates to “small bird of the thickets, found in the Carolinas”, indicating it was found in the New World. Their songs mimic those of other birds, as well as just about anything in the area. One helpful way to distinguish their songs from those of other mimics is that Gray Catbirds generally repeat a phrase only once in a sequence of song, while mockingbirds repeat phrases several times and other mimics usually at least twice. (Hear Catbird songs and calls here.)
Gray Catbirds love insects and fruit. Attract them to your own yard with oranges and grape jelly when they return in the spring, and plant plenty of thick shrubbery to provide the shelter they love (and use for nesting).