It’s not that you never see catbirds—I sometimes see them at the suet feeders or rustling around in low bushes, amid in plenty of cover near the edge of the yard. Whenever I see a big disturbance among the branches and leaves there (catbirds aren’t particularly quiet about their activities), I’m pretty sure I’ll catch a glimpse of this slender gray bird. But a catbird is more often heard than seen.
A great mimic, catbirds are related to other gifted vocalists including mockingbirds and thrashers. You may often hear them in the woods, but not realize that the amazing repertoire is the work of a catbird. Catbirds can copy another bird’s song, add it to its own and present a refrain full of trills, chatters, clicks, whistles and more trills. I once recorded a catbird that sang continuously for well over a minute. It was extraordinarily complicated, beautiful and completely unrehearsed! I’ve really never heard anything like it. And, of course, everyone’s heard of the famous “mew” sound that gives the catbird its name.
Sometimes the “mew” can be very clear and pure, but more often I hear it as a hoarse and complaining “whaaaa.” Maybe he’s protesting the lack of inspiring material to imitate lately!
And while they look very sophisticated with their black caps, elegant gray plumage and flaring tails, to me there’s a bit of a clown in the catbird. First, there’s the unexpected patch of rusty-colored under-tail coverts. Strange that there’s color in an otherwise completely gray bird—and in such an odd place. You have to wonder what it’s doing there. Maybe it’s the catbird’s idea of a little joke.
And watching catbirds scrambling and tumbling through the underbrush as they seek out berries and insects is hardly refined behavior—you could call it acrobatic if it were a little more practiced. But the catbird doesn’t seem to care—next he’ll be showing off on a fencepost, flicking and spreading his lovely tail as though all birds acted that way. But all birds don’t act that way and all birds don’t sing that way. There isn’t another bird with such flair, such confidence and such an amazing voice. And that’s why I love catbirds—don’t you? Learn more about Gray Catbirds and listen to their calls on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website All About Birds. Happy Birding!
Written by R. Brune