Gray Catbird: Another Backyard Mimic

Jill Staake

My backyard is invaded with neighborhood cats, both strays and pets whose owners choose not to keep them indoors. As a result, my feeders don’t get nearly the visitors they used to, and the meow of a cat is much more common than the chirp of a bird these days. (Don’t get me wrong – I love cats and have three indoor kitties myself, but they can be a real nuisance in urban and suburban backyards, where they quickly outnumber and overwhelm the songbirds in the area.) The other day, though, the loud “mew” sound I assumed was a cat was quickly followed by a trill of other bird calls and songs, and I realized I had a Gray Catbird hanging around.

In much of the country, the Gray Catbird is a summer bird, seen from about May to October. In the Southeast, where I live, the Gray Catbird makes its appearance in winter when it migrates south to escape the cold weather. Their winter range includes the Gulf Coast of the U.S., the Caribbean, Mexico, and most of Central America. In the spring, they return north to most of the U.S. and southern Canada, except areas west of the Rockies. (See a range map here.)

The Gray Catbird, as its name implies, is mostly gray in color, but it has a few features that make it easier to identify. It has a black cap on the top of its head, helping distinguish it from its fellow mimic, the Northern Mockingbird. It also has a patch of rusty red feathers under its tail, which mark it obviously as a catbird if you’re lucky enough to get a glimpse of them.

Gray Catbirds often hang out in thickets of shrubbery, rather than perched high on treetops like mockingbirds. In fact, their scientific name, Dumetella carolinensis, roughly translates to “small bird of the thickets, found in the Carolinas”, indicating it was found in the New World. Their songs mimic those of other birds, as well as just about anything in the area. One helpful way to distinguish their songs from those of other mimics is that Gray Catbirds generally repeat a phrase only once in a sequence of song, while mockingbirds repeat phrases several times and other mimics usually at least twice. (Hear Catbird songs and calls here.)

Gray Catbirds love insects and fruit. Attract them to your own yard with oranges and grape jelly when they return in the spring, and plant plenty of thick shrubbery to provide the shelter they love (and use for nesting).

  1. says

    I was looking out my windows one day and even when I was outback where my feeders are and dicovered that what I saw was a different type of bird I haven’t seen before and now that I seen a picture of the Gray Catbird and it looks just like it, I belive it was one of them we have alot of these bushes your speaking of. And my feeders have fruit and nuts in it. I get from the Audubon, here in my State which is Upstate New York. If this is those birds I surprised they made it so far. I am a bird watcher and bird lover. Thank You for showing me this picture now I know what kind of bird and I can look it up in my birdbook.

  2. Debra says

    Help, I have a mockingbird that is guarding my feeder and refusing to let the other birds eat. Is there any way to get rid of this bird?

  3. says

    True. Neighborhood pets can be a real nuisance in urban and suburban backyards.
    What I do. I remain present for sometime when I feed birds in the morning. that is what I can do :(

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