A Singing Cat in the Hedgerow

The "gray catbird," Dumetella carolinensis, is a member of the mockingbird family, which also includes the thrashers.
The catbird is slender, and at nine inches in length, somewhat smaller than a robin. It has a long, fan-shaped tail, rather short wings, and a long, narrow, slightly curved bill. The catbird's satiny plumage is a dark, slight-gray on its back and a lighter gray on its underparts. Its head has a black cap and under its black tail is a distinct, chestnut patch at the base. The bird's bill and legs are black as well.
The adult male and female catbirds and the juveniles are all very similar in appearance, although the babies have stubbier tails.
The gray catbird is a sociable creature, often found inhabiting shrubs, vines and hedges near houses. Sometimes, the birds, hidden in a bush, will utter a call that sounds very much like a "miaow," hence his name. If one calls back to the bird in imitation, it will respond, and jump out into view!
The catbird also sings beautiful, bubbling successions of musical notes, and reproduces phrases of other birds' songs in the manner of its southern cousin, the mockingbird. While singing, the catbird likes to flick its tail and gesture with its wings as though performing for an audience!
Catbirds are primarily insectivorous, and their presence is a great benefit to the home gardener. They particularly enjoy eating the destructive cutworm, and are adroit in the capture of moths. They also dine upon wild berries in early Autumn, such as those of the spicebush, dogwood, sassafras and Virginia Creeper. These berries are not sweet, and do not appeal to mammals. Instead, they are are sour, with a high fat content; they are just right to nourish birds about to migrate for long distances!
Catbirds return to the same neighborhood year after year to raise their families. (This behavior is advantageous because foraging is safer and more efficient when birds are familiar with the terrain.)
John Burroughs writes an anecdote concerning a friend of his who had a pair of catbirds return three years in a row to her property. She had taught them to enter the window, perch on the back of a chair and take butter from a fork!
The male and female catbirds both work at building their bulky nest. Its rough exterior is woven of twigs, strips of bark, coarse grasses and leaves. It may incorporate bits of paper and rags when the birds can find them. The cup-like interior of the nest is lined with tiny rootlets and soft shredded bark.
The nest is usually concealed in a dense bush, hedge or low tree. The mother bird lays four to six glossy, dark greenish-blue eggs, and incubates them for about two weeks. (If a brown-headed cowbird lays her egg in the next, the catbird will simply pitch it out!)
The catbird parents are very nervous birds, constantly on the lookout for enemy intruders. They are very aggressive in their defense of the nest, and will strike continuously at people, cats and dogs in an effort to drive them away. They are so zealous in this endeavor that they will even drive enemies away from the nests of other bird species!
After the mother and father catbird raise one brood of nestlings, fed solely on animal matter, they begin a second brood the same season in the same vicinity. Many, many insect pests are thus destroyed!
The gray catbird generally arrives in our area in early May, and leaves us in late October. It ranges as far north as Canada in the summer, and in winter, is found as far south as Panama.


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