Though this songbird has relatively plain plumage, the varied voice of the gray catbird astonishes many birders. Able to mimic a wide range of sounds, the distinctive "mew" call gives this passerine its name.
Gray Catbird, Grey Catbird, Slate-Colored Mockingbird
- Bill: Short, somewhat stout, black
- Size: 8-9 inches long with 11-12-inch wingspan, slender build, long tail
- Colors: Gray, black, rust, gray-brown
- Markings: Genders are similar with overall plain slate gray plumage, slightly paler on the underparts. The head is topped with a narrow black cap, and the black eye stands out and appears quite large in the gray face. The primary feathers are darker gray or blackish, and the tail is black. The undertail coverts are a rich rusty color.
Juvenile birds are similar to adults but even more plain, lacking the black cap and with paler undertail coverts. Their overall color is more gray-brown instead of the mature slate gray shade.
Berries, fruit, insects, spiders (See: Frugivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
The gray catbird is a neotropical migrant that prefers shrubby, dense, thicket-like and forest edge habitats. A small part of their range – along the Atlantic coast and inland to the southern parts of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana – is occupied year round, but not always by the same birds. In summer, the gray catbird's breeding range extends much further north, up to southern Canada as far west as British Columbia and including Idaho, northeastern Utah and western Colorado, though they are far more common in the eastern United States. In winter, the northern birds may stay in the year-round range, but winter migrants also extend along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico, into Central America, northern Colombia and the Caribbean. Vagrant sightings are regularly reported much further west and north than would be expected.
These songbirds have a well-developed syrinx and a wide vocal repertoire. The typical call is a raspy, cat-like, elongated mew note. Songs, however, are much more elaborate and include rattles, warbles, whistles, gurgles and other notes, including mimicked sounds from other birds, frogs, machinery or even more unusual sources. A single song can last up to 10 minutes, and while some notes will be repeated within the song, the gray catbird does not repeat large phrases as frequently as other mimicking birds. Both males and females sing, but males are much louder.
Gray catbirds are often solitary or seen in pairs, and they can be either tame or shy depending on whether they are found in suburban areas or more wild habitats. They typically stay low in thick brushy areas and are energetic foragers. They also glean insects from the ground, and often hold their tails cocked up with a slight waving from side to side as they feed.
These are monogamous birds. A mated pair works together to build the nest, but the female does most of the actual construction while the male brings her grass, stems, leaves and similar materials to build the bulky cup, which is lined with finer materials. The nest is typically positioned 5-50 feet above the ground.
The eggs are a rich blue-green color and may be marked with small reddish-brown spots or specks. Each brood will contain 1-6 eggs, and a pair of gray catbirds may raise 1-3 broods per year, though multiple broods are most common only in southerly parts of the range. The female parent incubates the eggs for 12-13 days, and after the altricial chicks have hatched, both parents work to feed them for an additional 10-11 days until they are ready to leave the nest.
Attracting Gray Catbirds:
These birds will readily visit backyards that offer thick shrubs and bushes, particularly if there are fruit-bearing varieties such as holly, elderberry, serviceberry or dogwood to serve as a ready food source. Leaving leaf litter intact can provide another foraging opportunity for gray catbirds, but these birds enjoy fruit so much they may damage strawberries, cherries, grapes or similar garden crops if the plants are not protected. In the field, these birds can be curious and will respond to pishing.
These birds are not considered threatened or endangered, but because they are neotropical migrants, conservation of their winter habitat in Mexico, Central America and Colombia is critical to ensuring their continued prosperity. Backyard birders can help protect gray catbirds by preserving shrubby habitat areas and minimizing the use of lawn chemicals that eliminate the insects these birds consume.