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Gray Catbird (Overview)

The gray catbird is a charming yet secretive songbird known for its cat-like calls and melodious song. Found throughout North America, particularly in dense shrubs, these birds are a delight for bird enthusiasts and backyard bird watchers. This article provides an in-depth description of the gray catbird including their appearance, behaviors, some interesting facts, and practical tips for creating a catbird-friendly habitat that invites these shadowy songsters into your backyard.

Appearance

The gray catbird is a medium sized songbird, with uniform slate gray coloring all over the body. A good identifying feature is a “black cap”, a black stripe found along the top of their head. They have a black beak and black eye. There is a bit of hidden color though, a rusty red patch on the underside of the tail that you can usually only see if they have their tail flicked up in the air. 

gray catbird rump
Gray Catbird showing their red under-tail patch | image via Deposit Photos

Range

Along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. from Massachusetts to northern Florida, Gray Catbirds remain year-round. However most of the population is migratory. They spend winters in Florida, along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.

When spring comes, they migrate north, spreading across the United States. During the spring and summer months Gray Catbirds can be found all across the eastern and central U.S. states (minus Florida). They even spread into the northwest, and are absent only in the hotter and drier climates of the southwest and California. 

Sounds

So why are they called “catbirds”? This interesting name comes from their common call, a raspy sounding “meeewww” that is reminiscent of a cat meowing. Once you learn this meow-like call, you’ll always know when a catbird is around!

While their whiny cat-call may not sound particularly melodic, they actually have a beautiful song. Catbirds will mimic sounds they hear around them and string them together. Males are the ones that sing, and one song can go on for several minutes at a time.  They will repeat a sound a few times in a row to create a phrase, then string one phrase after another into a song. This can include the mimicked sounds of birds and frogs as well as whistles, squeaks and nasal tones. 

Gray Catbird with berry | image by:birdfeederhub.com

Habitat

The scientific name of the Gray Catbird is Dumetella carolinensis. Dumetella means “small thicket”, giving you a clue about what their preferred habitat is. On both their summer and winter grounds, these birds like to stay hidden in dense thickets, forest edges and areas of shrubs and vines. With their gray coloring they blend in with the shadows and can be hard to notice…but their calls and songs always give them away. 

Diet

During summer, insects make up a lot of their diet. Prey includes grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, moths and ants. But they also love fruit, and will look for it whenever available. Berries and cherries are a big source of their fruit intake, and you may have to be careful they don’t steal your garden strawberries, raspberries and grapes!

Nesting

Gray catbirds typically build their nests in dense shrubs, small trees, or thick tangles of vines, usually at heights ranging from 1 to 10 feet off the ground. The female constructs the nest, and sometimes males help with the supplies. Their nest is an open cup-shape, made from straw, twigs, bark, mud, and sometimes bits of plastic trash. Inside the cup is lined with grass, hair and pine needles.

The eggs of the gray catbird are a distinctive turquoise greenish-blue, usually numbering between three and five per clutch. Both parents share in the incubation process, which lasts about 12 to 14 days. After hatching, the parents are diligent in feeding and protecting their young, who fledge approximately 10 to 11 days after hatching. The young birds continue to receive care and feeding from the parents for several weeks after leaving the nest.

Gray Catbird | image by: birdfeederhub.com

Interesting Facts About Gray Catbirds

  • Gray Catbirds often engage in wing-fluttering and tail-fanning displays to assert dominance and deter intruders. Males and females defend their territory even during the winter, which is uncommon for most songbird species.
  • Unlike many other songbirds where you may be used to the males and females having different coloration, all adult gray catbirds look the same. 
  • Some males may sing non-stop for up to ten minutes!
  • They are relatives of Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers, who also mimic other birds when they sing.
  • Because catbirds tend to spend their winters along the coast, loss of habitat due to coastal development may become a concern for their future survival. 
  • The oldest known catbird, tracked and recorded through banding, was 17 years old!
  • When perched, they often hold their tail pointed downward, which gives them a bit of a hump-backed appearance.
  • These curious birds can sometimes be lured out of the bushes if you stand close-by and make a “pishing” or “kissing” sound. 
gray catbird bath
Gray Catbird at a bird bath | via Pixabay

How To Attract Gray Catbirds

If you have a platform feeder (an open seed tray), catbirds might stop by. However seeds are not a big part of their diet so they aren’t usually interested in regular feeders. But there are plenty of other things you can do to make your yard attractive to them. 

1. Provide Dense Shrubbery

Gray catbirds prefer habitats with dense foliage where they can find shelter, search for insects and build their nests. Planting shrub-boarders on your property line, landscaping with clusters of larger shrubs and encouraging shrub growth along forest edges if you have woods in your yard can all help make your yard more attractive to catbirds.

2. Plant Native Fruiting Trees & Shrubs

Catbirds love fruit, especially berries and small to medium fruits. Planting native shrubs that produce fruits will definitely help to attract them. There are so many to choose from, including serviceberry, mulberry, black cherry, elderberry, blueberry, American beautyberry, chokeberry, winterberry, dogwood, blackberry, and raspberry. 

3. Offer a variety of feeder foods

Gray catbirds have a diverse diet, and although seeds may not be very attractive, there are still feeder foods that will draw them in. 

  • Mealworms: catbirds are insect eaters so mealworms are right up their alley. Just make sure to offer them in a dish or a platform feeder. Some smaller bluebird feeders might not be large enough for them. 
  • Suet: Gray catbirds do occasionally consume suet, particularly during cooler months, when other food sources are less abundant, and during migration periods. If possible, find suet cakes that include fruits or mealworms to cater to their natural dietary preferences. 
  • Fruits: Small pieces of orange or apple, sliced grapes, or dried fruits like raisins and currants. 
  • Jelly: Catbirds have been known to enjoy grape jelly and will visit oriole feeders offering jelly.
gray catbird oriole feeder
Gray Catbird eating jelly from an oriole feeder | image by USFWS Midwest Region via Flickr

4. Maintain a Water Source

Catbirds enjoy water and are known to visit bird baths for bathing and drinking. A reliable water source will go a long way to attract them! Birdbaths with wide and shallow basins are ideal, as catbirds prefer to drink and bathe in shallow water. Ensure the water is clean and refreshed regularly to keep it appealing.

5. Create Leaf Litter Areas

Gray catbirds forage on the ground for insects and other small invertebrates. Allowing areas of leaf litter to accumulate under shrubs and trees can provide a rich foraging ground, attracting catbirds to your yard.

6. Avoid Pesticides

Since gray catbirds feed on a variety of insects, avoiding the use of pesticides in your garden ensures a healthy food supply for them. Opt for natural pest control methods to maintain a bird-friendly environment.

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