Singing Cat in the Hedgerow
"gray catbird," Dumetella carolinensis,
is a member of the mockingbird family, which also includes
The catbird is slender, and at nine inches in length,
somewhat smaller than a robin. It has a long, fan-shaped
tail, rather short wings, and a long, narrow, slightly
curved bill. The catbird's satiny plumage is a dark,
slight-gray on its back and a lighter gray on its underparts.
Its head has a black cap and under its black tail is
a distinct, chestnut patch at the base. The bird's bill
and legs are black as well.
The adult male and female catbirds and the juveniles
are all very similar in appearance, although the babies
have stubbier tails.
The gray catbird is a sociable creature, often found
inhabiting shrubs, vines and hedges near houses. Sometimes,
the birds, hidden in a bush, will utter a call that
sounds very much like a "miaow," hence his
name. If one calls back to the bird in imitation, it
will respond, and jump out into view!
The catbird also sings beautiful, bubbling successions
of musical notes, and reproduces phrases of other birds'
songs in the manner of its southern cousin, the mockingbird.
While singing, the catbird likes to flick its tail and
gesture with its wings as though performing for an audience!
Catbirds are primarily insectivorous, and their presence
is a great benefit to the home gardener. They particularly
enjoy eating the destructive cutworm, and are adroit
in the capture of moths. They also dine upon wild berries
in early Autumn, such as those of the spicebush, dogwood,
sassafras and Virginia Creeper. These berries are not
sweet, and do not appeal to mammals. Instead, they are
are sour, with a high fat content; they are just right
to nourish birds about to migrate for long distances!
Catbirds return to the same neighborhood year after
year to raise their families. (This behavior is advantageous
because foraging is safer and more efficient when birds
are familiar with the terrain.)
John Burroughs writes an anecdote concerning a friend
of his who had a pair of catbirds return three years
in a row to her property. She had taught them to enter
the window, perch on the back of a chair and take butter
from a fork!
The male and female catbirds both work at building their
bulky nest. Its rough exterior is woven of twigs, strips
of bark, coarse grasses and leaves. It may incorporate
bits of paper and rags when the birds can find them.
The cup-like interior of the nest is lined with tiny
rootlets and soft shredded bark.
The nest is usually concealed in a dense bush, hedge
or low tree. The mother bird lays four to six glossy,
dark greenish-blue eggs, and incubates them for about
two weeks. (If a brown-headed cowbird lays her egg in
the next, the catbird will simply pitch it out!)
The catbird parents are very nervous birds, constantly
on the lookout for enemy intruders. They are very aggressive
in their defense of the nest, and will strike continuously
at people, cats and dogs in an effort to drive them
away. They are so zealous in this endeavor that they
will even drive enemies away from the nests of other
After the mother and father catbird raise one brood
of nestlings, fed solely on animal matter, they begin
a second brood the same season in the same vicinity.
Many, many insect pests are thus destroyed!
The gray catbird generally arrives in our area in early
May, and leaves us in late October. It ranges as far
north as Canada in the summer, and in winter, is found
as far south as Panama.
Articles by Miriam Sanders