10 Fun Facts About the Gray Catbird

If you don't already love these curious crooners, you soon will.

The Gray Catbird is a medium-size songbird that can commonly be found across the eastern United States and Midwest. A frequent visitor to backyards, catbirds are often heard before they are seen, either flitting about in the brush or perched out in the open, singing proudly and loudly. Curious and active, these birds also have a feisty side when defending their territory—or the occasional bird feeder—from intruders. Their big personalities make them a favorite of birders, so whether you're already familiar with this species or just looking to learn more, enjoy these fascinating Gray Catbird facts. 

  1. Gray Catbirds belong to the family Mimidae, an assortment of songbirds known for their mimicry, including mockingbirds, thrashers, and tremblers. Like other mimids, Gray Catbirds exhibit impressive vocal prowess, with males able to rattle off an array of phrases featuring chirps, squeaks, whistles, whines, and even gurgles. When singing, performances can last more than 10 minutes and incorporate songs from other bird species, tree frog calls, and even manmade and mechanical sounds!
  2. Gray Catbirds can produce two sounds at the same time thanks to their ability to use each side of their syrinx, or vocal organ, independently. These songsters can also produce sounds from only one side at a time or alternate between the right and left sides. 
  3. Is that a cat in those bushes? Not so fast. Gray Catbirds get their common name from their distinctive mewing call, which can sound like a cat’s meow to some ears. It’s the most well-known out of the species' three observed calls, often used while courting mates or defending their territories. Catbirds also make a quirt call and produce a loud chattering chek-chek-chek, known as a ratchet call. 
  4. From March to late April, Gray Catbirds begin migrating from Mexico, Central America, and the southern United States to their northern U.S. breeding grounds and up into Canada. Summer migrants start returning south in late August. While most birds are migratory, year-round catbird populations can be found along the Atlantic seaboard from southern Massachusetts to northern Florida and over to the Gulf States. 
  5.  Hoping to spot one of these reclusive crooners? Head to the bushes. A Gray Catbird’s life revolves around dense shrubs and low-lying vegetation, with everything from foraging to nest building taking place in thickets, small trees, and vine tangles. In fact, the catbird's genus name, Dumetella, comes from the Latin phrase for “little thicket,” a nod to the catbird’s preferred habitat.
  6.  Catbirds are omnivores, but they especially love fruit, often targeting commercial crops of blackberries, cherries, grapes, and strawberries. Their habit of pecking more fruit than they eat, however, can make them unpopular with gardeners. In spring and summer, orange halves and jelly are a good way to attract catbirds—and maybe an oriole—to your yard or balcony. Of course, you can also plant native plants like elderberry and serviceberry. 
  7. The Gray Catbird patrolling your blackberry bushes or hogging the bird feeder this year is most likely the same one from last year. Banding records suggest that catbirds often return to the same nesting grounds each year. What's more, the oldest known Gray Catbird was 17 years and 11 months old. First banded in Maryland in 1984, it popped again in New Jersey all that time later. 
  8. Catbirds often pair off shortly after arriving on their breeding grounds in spring, with mating peaking from mid-May to mid-June. Females construct cup-shaped nests up to 10 feet off the ground using materials like twigs, bark, and mud. They line the interior with finer materials like animal hair, pine needles, and grasses. 
  9. At first glance, Gray Catbirds may appear all gray with only a telltale black cap. Both sexes, however, sport a chestnut patch of feathers under the base of their tail. During mating displays, males fluff up their breast and rump while approaching females, sometimes flashing their rufous-colored butt. If a female accepts, she will vibrate her wings and raise her tail.
  10. Brown-headed Cowbirds often attempt to parasitize Gray Catbird nests—which typically consist of 3-5 green-blue eggs—but are often thwarted. Gray Catbirds are adept at avoiding brood parasitism by quickly puncturing and ejecting foreign eggs from the nest. Research suggests that female catbirds learn to recognize their own clutch by closely observing their first egg laid and rejecting any others that look different.