Let’s face it. The gray catbird is a well-named species.
No other bird species that occurs here is so uniformly gray across its body. There are only two exceptions: the top of its head and beneath its tail. Catbird heads are crowned with black. Their undersides just in front of the tail are reddish.
The cat part of the catbird’s name is fitting, too. Catbirds have a mewing call that does resemble the sound made by a kitten. The resemblance is not close enough to convince the authors of the American Ornithologists Union’s monograph on the species. “Few people would mistake the sound of this bird for that of an actual cat,” they declare.
Well, I’ve been fooled a number of times.
Suezette remembers wandering around looking for a missing cat—but it turned out to be a catbird chase.
The catbird’s vocal repertoire is hardly limited to mewing calls in any case. The catbird is a virtuoso. More than that, it is capable of singing two different songs at the same time.
Here’s how the Ornithologists Union explains that both sides of the bird’s syrinx, the vocal organ, “are able to operate independently, the gray catbird can sing with two voices at the same time.”
Quoting further, “This species’ song is a long series of short syllables delivered in rapid sequence (and) may include syllables of more than 100 different types varying from whistles to harsh chatters, squeaks and even mimicry.
“These are sung in seemingly random order at an uneven tempo, resulting in what often sounds like an improvised babble of notes occasionally spiced with the familiar mew.”
That’s not the end of it.
This “babble” may go on at length, up to 10 minutes at a time.
The description of catbird calls in the monograph, published as part of the “Birds of North America” series, goes on for two pages.
Not all catbird sounds are vocalizations. Males sometimes perform a slow-speed flight during which the wings produce a whirring noise.
So say the experts.
I haven’t heard that sound, although I’ve spent quite a lot of the past several days listening to catbirds. That’s because it’s been too wet to work in the garden.
Catbirds are good garden companions, as it happens.
They prefer dense shrubbery, and this is reflected in the scientific name for the species, Dumatella, which means “small thicket.”
The small thicket at my place is a raspberry patch, and the catbirds like to hang out there. I’ve often suspected they nested there, but I’ve never succeeded in finding an active nest. While cleaning out the patch this spring, however, I found a nest from last year that fits the description of a catbird nest, a tightly woven cup of grasses, roots and feathers.
I’m not certain it’s a catbird nest, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong. Catbirds were angry with me every time I went out to pick berries last season, and this week, catbirds were hanging around the patch once again.
Catbirds typically produce two broods a year in most of North America, but they won’t be reusing last year’s nest. It came down when I removed the old growth of raspberries—opening up the patch and, coincidentally, probably reducing its appeal for catbirds. I have no doubt they will remain with me this summer, in any case. Later in the week, I found catbirds haunting a chokecherry bush.
In his “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” published by the Tri-College Center for Environmental Studies in 1975, Robert E. Stewart rated the gray catbird as “locally common” in the Red River Valley. That description certainly applies in my back yard. The birds are common in the Turtle Mountains—a continuous expanse of shrubbery. They occur in suitable habitats elsewhere throughout the state, except in the far northwestern corner, which is arguably the baldest part of North Dakota.
Catbirds, says Stewart, “are especially characteristic of dense thickets of small trees and shrubs that occur in moist situations. These may occur within semi-open forest habitats, as margins of woodlands, or as fairly dense pockets of brush land on the open prairie.
“Gray catbirds also breed in man-mad habitats with established shrubbery, including residential areas and parks in towns and cities, farmsteads and mature multi-row shelterbelts.”
Our area has a lot of such habitat. Wherever it occurs, it’s worth taking a minute—or 10—to listen for catbirds.
It’s an anthem of late spring and summer.
Catbirds generally finish up their nesting, and their singing, by the middle of August.
Then they take off for the Gulf Coast and West Indies.