By Tom Dennis
Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis
If you have thick shrubs in your yard or live near the edge of a wooded area, that slender gray bird that is eating the grape jelly that you meant for orioles is the beautiful and sleek Gray Catbird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says “If you’re convinced you’ll never be able to learn bird calls, start with the Gray Catbird. Once you’ve heard its catty mew you won’t forget it.” Let’s take a close look at why this creature is a joy to have as a summer visitor.
The sexes are indistinguishable except by behavior during mating season. They are a handsome bird with solid gray back and underparts with the exception of a bright rusty patch under the tail. The legs, bill, tail, and top of the head are black and their eye is dark red to gray-black in color. Their overall dimensions are reminiscent of a slim robin and they weigh in at an average of just under 1.5 ounces. They are short-distance migrators whose breeding range extends north only to the southern edges of Canada and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. They are year-round inhabitants along most of the Atlantic seaboard states and extend their winter range from there to the Gulf of Mexico shores of the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba.
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Gray Catbirds are a member of the mimid family that includes thrashers and the well-known Northern Mockingbird. They copy the songs of many other birds including Blue Jays and Belted Kingfishers and also mimic tree frogs and mechanical sounds. They also have the ability, through the design of their amazing syrinx, to make two sounds simultaneously! The songs that they string together incorporate their namesake cat mew and may last up to ten minutes. Unlike most songbirds that sing from a high and visible perch, the Gray Catbird prefers to sing from a secluded perch in a dense tree or shrub. Although they are shy in their art of singing, they are quite inquisitive and you can easily entice them to leave their thick cover to investigate if you make soft “pishing” sounds.
The genus name Dumetella is based on the Latin term dumus meaning “thorny thicket” and therefore means “small thornbush-dweller”. These birds are best known for eating fruits and berries but 50% of their diet is insects of which they consume a large variety. If you are fortunate enough to see one feeding on the ground you will notice that they toss leaves and other debris aside with the bill rather than scratching with their feet like many bird species. They nest in dense thickets close to the ground and they do a good job of recognizing their own eggs thus protecting their nests from brood parasites such as Brown-headed Cowbirds and cuckoos.
To attract Gray Catbirds, plant shrubs in your yard near deciduous trees. The best shrub choices are those with small fruit such as serviceberry, dogwood, and elderberries. They also need a steady diet of insects to feed their young and to meet their protein needs so… please avoid or strictly limit use of pesticides and as I’ve said before, let creation do the job of balancing nature.
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot on the first Monday of the month, October through May at 6:45 PM. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.