The gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) may seem like an odd choice as a first bird to profile. Its plumage is drab gray except for a splash of rusty orange under the tail. It isn’t one of the handful of most widely recognized backyard birds. It is not nearly as notorious as its kin, the northern mockingbird. It is, nonetheless, quite common in our area from late spring through early fall, and quite distinctive in appearance and sound.
These birds start to show up in my yard sometime around late April or early May. I instantly know they’re back from the call: a loud, nasal whine that somehow always seems directed right at me. I know I am irresponsibly anthropomorphizing here, but the “Nyaaaaaaah! Nyaaaaaaah!” seems interpretable variously as “fill up your feeder already, lazy human!” “Go away!” and “I’m here, stop ignoring me.” I mean… just listen to this nonsense. It’s an irritating sound, but I think it’s what draws me to this bird. That harsh, insistent call makes gray catbirds somehow seem more intentional in their actions than most birds. A bogus impression, to be sure, but there it is.
One small encounter not long ago served to endear me further to the species. I happened upon one trapped in netting and was able to free it. The bird relaxed when I held it, allowing me to easily free its legs and wing. I don’t know if this is typical behavior for a bird in distress, or if it represented intelligence, intense fear, or something else, but it was a nice feeling of connection to nature.
Like other mimids (around here, that’s the northern mockingbird) the gray catbirds song is a jazz odyssey of cobbled together sounds. Both species get a bad rap for “ugly” songs, but I honestly find them quite lovely most of the time. They do tend to go on and on, though, so much so that it can be frustrating to identify birdsong with a mimid in the mix. I’m still a bit of a neophyte at this, but I can’t count the number of times an unfamiliar song has turned out to belong to a mockingbird or catbird.
Gray catbirds are ground foragers and nest in shrubs. I often find them at my feeders or taking mulberries and other small fruits. I see them anywhere there are patches of shaded understory plants, and they are often fairly abundant in neighborhood parks. I think they go overlooked because they occupy an in-between space. They don’t appear very high on trendy “most common” lists, but neither are they uncommon. So to a birder a gray catbird sighting (in range and in season, anyway) is not noteworthy, but a casual observer may not even be aware of the species at all.
Gray Catbird Links:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Cat Predation Study