The Gray Catbird: A Meowing from the Shrubbery

By Dave Hanks

A most distinctive, memorable call issues forth from a tangle of bushes. A meowing call that will not let you rest until you have located the origin. It is loud and has been known to last up to 10 minutes at a time. Most song birds wait until the sun is up, and they have solarized, before becoming active. Not so with the Catbird, who will start his song in the dark, before the sun rises. The male’s song is loud to warn trespassers to avoid his territory. The female will answer her mate in a much softer tone.

This species is one of the largest of the song birds at about 9 inches long. It is a member of the Mockingbird family and in the genus Dumetella – which means “small thicket”. The bird has a dark gray body with an even darker eye and tail. Field identification marks are its black cap and very bright, rusty butt.

Government agencies are paranoid about the feeding of birds in their parks. In some, they won’t even let you put out water – even though the birds are frantic in their thirst. However, most birds (like most other animals) are opportunistic, and the Catbird is extremely so. This highly adaptable bird eats great quantities of insects and loves berries. It prefers moist, boggy, or streamside habitats where insects abound and the vegetation is thick. Water and sand bathing are favorite activities.

Other characteristics that set it apart from other song birds are: the building of more than one nest each year, the vigorous defense of the nests against predators, and the ability to recognize (which other species can’t) Cowbird eggs laid in their nests and then destroy them. Cowbird parasitism is a big problem to many birds – not so to the Catbird.

We experience this species whenever we are in Montana’s Centennial Valley or along the Salmon River. We have also had it in our berry bushes in early September during migration. Its song and sneaky behavior is always interesting.

(Black cap is visible)