Gray catbirds have become the best customers for the juice and jelly we put out for spring birds.
The juice comes from the halves of oranges we offer, and the jelly is grape-flavored. Catbirds attack both with relish – pretty much tearing the pulp from the oranges. Orioles are more delicate eaters, but they are more aggressive at the feeders.
For the rest of the summer, catbirds will be among the most conspicuous of birds in our back yard west of Gilby, N.D. – but not because they are showy birds, like the orioles that nearly overwhelmed us during the cold weeks of late May.
Catbirds present a sharp contrast to the brilliant orange and black plumage of the orioles and the more subtle but still bright color of a variety of warblers that graced us.
Catbirds are about the size of a robin, 8½ inches long, but they appear slimmer and more elongated because their longish, rounded tails make them appear sleeker. Their color is best described as “neutral gray,” darker on the topside, lighter on the bottom. Overall, this creates a “smooth-dude” kind of image. The only spot of color is a chestnut patch the bird reveals when it lifts its tail. There’s a patch of chestnut there, on the spot that ornithologists call “the undertail coverts.” In other words, to clinch the identity of a catbird, look under the tail – the same technique that’s used to determine the gender of a young cat. But that’s not how catbirds got their common name.
Catbirds are among a group of birds called “mimidae,” which suggests their ability to imitate other birds – as their relatives the mockingbirds can do. Catbirds, however, make their own noises, more than 100 types of them, “varying from whistles to harsh chattery squeaks and even mimicry,” the National Audubon Society’s “Birds of North America” tells us. “These are sung in seemingly random order at an uneven tempo, resulting in what often sounds like an improvised babble.”
The babble often contains a single syllable that sounds something like a mewing kitten. Hence the bird’s name. Catbird noise – it’s not really musical – is remarkably varied because the birds produce it from both sides of the syrinx, the vocal organ of birds. In catbirds, the two sides operate independently, and the birds “can sing with two voices at the same time.”
Catbirds are more often heard than seen. Once nesting begins, the species becomes much less conspicuous, withdrawing to fairly dense thickets, often including my raspberry patch, where they’re more efficient harvesters than I am. Nevertheless, the birds are welcome in the back yard. Their chatter makes a pleasant backdrop for yard work, and a kind of reassurance that despite the planet’s many troubles, the cycles of the bird world continue to unfold.
Questions from readers
Q. How many northern cardinals are there in Grand Forks, N.D.?
A. It’s tough to say. Eleven were reported Dec. 16 during last year’s Christmas Bird Count. In 2017, five were counted. Cardinals are not migratory, but the count probably doesn’t reflect the size of the breeding population here. There are many variables during a count, including the weather and available food. In nesting season, suitable habitat is the most critical limiting factor. A male cardinal defends a territory amounting to an acre or more, equivalent to half a dozen city lots of 7,000 square feet. Of course, not every block has its cardinal, and not all parts of Grand Forks provide suitable habitat. Numbers are probably greatest in late summer, when young-of-the -year are outside nests and active. Cardinals’ mortality is high, however, so population growth is fairly slow. Many cardinals seen here are young males, which suggests they are pioneers whose home ranges became overcrowded. Our area remains at the northwestern limit of the cardinal’s range.
Q. How long do ravens live?
A. The record for a banded bird recovered from the wild is 13 years and four months. Captive birds have been reported to live to 80 years of age. Ravens at the Tower of London have lived more than 44 years.
Q. Here’s a follow-up question: Do ravens return to the same area year after year?
A. Often, yes. Sometimes, no. Ravens are generally faithful to territory, but changes in habitat and food availability may cause them to move elsewhere. Some have been known to return to a nest that had been used several years previously.
These answers come from my go-to source, “The Birds of North America,” published by The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the American Ornithologists’ Union. You can find this series online by searching “Birds of North America.”