Grey catbird, Slate-colored mockingbird, Common catbird, Northern catbird
The Gray catbird produces a cat-like mew. It has somber gray coloring, a black top to its head and bright rusty feathers beneath its tail. They are relatives of thrashers and mockingbirds, sharing that group’s vocal abilities, able to copy the sounds of other birds and incorporate them into their own song.
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Gray catbirds are endemic to the Nearctic region and breed in the central, north and eastern United States (Oregon to New Mexico, and along the east coast), as well as western and south-central Canada (Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). In winter they live in the very southeast of the United States, along Mexico’s east coat, and in the Caribbean Islands. These birds inhabit vines and dense thickets of shrubs within woodlands, occasionally being found in residential areas, and also around forest clearings and edges, roadsides, fencerows, streamsides and abandoned farmland. They prefer areas that do not have many conifer trees.
Habits and lifestyle
Gray catbirds are diurnal and migratory, though they migrate at night. Flocks number 10 to 15 birds. To feed, they glean insects from the ground and off vegetation, or forage in treetops. They communicate through visual means, using special attitudes of their head and feathers, as well as by way of songs and calls. A Gray catbird responds aggressively towards predators, flashing their wings and tail, and calling. They may attack and peck at predators near the nest. The male proclaims his territory or challenges an intruder by singing his song loudly, singing more quietly near the nest, where the female may sing back to the male. During the breeding season and winter, mating pairs are territorial, with males defending a small area around their nest. During winter, the males and females will defend separate territories.
Diet and nutrition
Gray catbirds are omnivorous, eating mostly insects (ants, beetles, caterpillars, flies, and moths) and spiders, also fruits (raspberries and blueberries). Until they fledge, nestlings are almost exclusively fed insect food, then they start to eat fruit.
A Gray catbird is monogamous, and so has only one mate. Pairs form soon after birds arrive at the breeding grounds in spring, where courtship displays begin. The male sings, then pauses to rush off after the female. He struts and wheels about with wings lowered and tail erect, showing off the chestnut patch on his undertail coverts. The mating season is from April to early August and birds usually produce two broods each season. The female constructs a bulky open nest within 2m of the ground, using twigs, scraps, and bits of paper. 1 to 5 turquoise eggs are laid and incubation is by the female, for 12 to 14 days, while her mate stands guard nearby, occasionally feeding her. The young are helpless when they hatch, partially covered by dark down. They are fed by both parents and leave the nest when they are 10 to 11 days old. Parents will continue to feed their chicks for up to 12 more days. Gray catbirds become reproductively mature when they are one year old.
Gray catbirds are widespread and generally plentiful. However, on Bermuda in recent years, their numbers have been reduced greatly due to deforestation and the predation of nests by introduced species (such as the European starling and the great kiskadee).
According to the All About Birds resource, the total breeding population size of the Gray catbird is 27 million individuals, 87% of them spending some time in the U.S., 13% of them breeding in Canada, and the remaining 25% wintering in Mexico. According to the Animal Diversity Web (University of Michigan, Museum of zoology) resource, the total population size of the species is around 10 million individuals. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) and their numbers today remain stable.
Gray catbirds are important as predators of insects, possibly being especially important in controlling infestations of the gypsy moth larvae. They are a food source for their predators.
Fun facts for kids
- The Gray catbird’s syrinx (being a double instrument located where the trachea separates into two bronchi) is unusual in that both sides can operate independently, meaning that they are able to sing using two voices at the same time.
- Gray catbirds can produce over 100 different sorts of sounds.
- The long song of the Gray catbird may last up to 10 minutes.
- Gray catbirds belong to the ‘Dumetella’ genus, which means “small thicket”, which is where this bird can be found hiding.
- The nests of this species often have the eggs of Brown-headed cowbirds laid in them. However, the Gray catbird is one of several species that can learn to recognize the eggs of the cowbird and push them out of the nest.
- When eating on the ground, these birds toss aside leaves with their beaks rather than using their feet to scratch.
- A group of catbirds is called a "mewing" or a "seat" of catbirds.