Gray catbird: master of mimicry
Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton
Each day as I head to the back of our property, I hear the piercing ‘meow’ call of the gray catbird. If I meow at him, I always get an answer of some sort back. This handsome member of the thrasher family bears the scientific name Dumetella carolinensis. It is a medium-sized perching bird; both sexes are monomorphic (or look exactly alike). It is 22 cm long, dark gray in colour, with a slim black bill and dark eyes. It has a long dark tail widening toward the tip, dark legs and an even darker cap on its head. It has a rust-coloured patch under the tail. The French name of the gray catbird is “monqueur chat.”
The behaviour of the gray catbird is very typical of a thrasher as it pumps its large tail up and down vocalizing all the while. It uses its loud cat sound to proclaim its territory, usually singing from inside the protection of a tree or bush, obscured from view by foliage. At the back of our property there are some very tall white cedars, which are the perfect hiding spot for the catbird to render his proclamations. These birds are urban, suburban, and rural. They eat mainly insects and berries. If you want to attract them to your feeder, try cheese, bread, raisins, cornflakes, currants, peanuts and crackers.
The gray catbird can mimic more than a hundred different species, including a tree frog. When I make my meowing sound at him, he often responds with the ‘purp-purp’ sound of a robin. He sings each phrase only once. The catbird’s syrinx (inside its throat) is divided in half and each side can operate independently. This means it can actually sing two songs at the same time. I have yet to hear this for myself but the phenomenon is well documented. Imagine being able to sing harmony with yourself!
The nest is cup-shaped and close to the ground on a tree branch. There are usually 2-3 pale blue eggs to a clutch. Another bird, the cowbird, is known to be too lazy to raise its own young and usually lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, which are often oblivious to the additional clutch members. If a cowbird happens to lay its eggs in a catbird nest, the tenant will deftly peck a hole in the cowbird egg and knock it out of the nest.
Catbirds summer all across southern Canada as far south as northeastern Arizona. Their winter range is the east coast of the U.S. southward to Central America and the Caribbean.
The orange-flavoured nectar in the oriole feeder is apparently not just for orioles. This week I was surprised to see what I first thought was a woodpecker on the oriole feeder. Closer inspection revealed a young yellow-bellied sapsucker (a member of the woodpecker family that drinks sap). While he was still enjoying his beverage on the feeder, along came a house finch on the opposite perch and it began drinking as well. Cocktails in the back yard.