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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Gray catbirds are mimics of the thickets

A gray catbird at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. (Andy Rathbun | St. Paul Pioneer Press)

While sitting on my deck enjoying the final rays of the setting sun on the last evening of spring 2018, a bird flew into the young green ash trees next to the deck. Given the trees’ limbs are thick with foliage, I couldn’t make out what the bird was at first.

At nearly eye level, I sat quietly looking at the bird, albeit seeing only bits and pieces of the bird’s body. Before I could at last identify the bird by its appearance, the bird emitted a soft yet discernible “mew.” Ah yes, a gray catbird. And a second later the bird flew to a nearby thicket and began singing its sweet and melodious song.

As with most male songbirds during the springtime breeding and nesting season, songs are purely territorial. In fact, even at this writing, almost July, red-winged blackbirds, house wrens, American robins, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and many others are still singing. Some, like Baltimore orioles, have essentially gone silent while others, such as American goldfinches, have just begun.

Catbirds, which are considered mimics that belong to the bird family Mimidae, belong to the same clan that another, and much more accomplished, master of imitation belongs to -- the northern mockingbird. Some 11 species in all, the gray catbird is a mimid and a fitting member of the avian family although only one other, the brown thrasher, regularly occur in northern Minnesota.

Of all mimids, gray catbirds are the most widely distributed species. The handsome black-capped and black-tailed all-gray bird with rufous-colored undertail coverts, can be found over most of the lower 48 states, as well as much of Canada. About 8 to 9 inches long with nearly a foot-long wingspan, gray catbirds are commonly grouped as medium-sized, long-tailed passerines.

But what endears and interests me most about gray catbirds is two-fold: the appealing song of the male bird, and both sexes’ behavior of remaining close to the ground and hidden within the understory.

Regarding the catbird song, it can be described as a warbling of sorts and mixed with a collection of chips, chats, squeaks and rasping notes. There is arguably an imitating quality to the male catbird song, though I’m hard pressed in picking out anything remarkably familiar or otherwise copied calls. Still, and wonderfully so, the musical diversity contained in the catbird song is very agreeable to ones’ ears.

As well, the somewhat secretive nature of this relatively shy bird is just as noteworthy. Where most songbirds frequently sing their territorial tunes from conspicuous perches, it is frequently the case that male catbirds choose less observable roosts from which to sing. Thus, you may very well hear the curious song, though in its rather subdued delivery, and you may believe that it comes from much higher aloft; but alas, you would be fooled by the bird’s ventriloquist-like song and would, therefore, need to gaze downward into the shrubbery to find him.

To be sure, the gray catbird’s chosen niche is within the confines of thickets where the bird not only sings from, but spends the majority of their days from too. It helps explain why gray catbirds are such successful and obviously adaptable birds. Thriving nearly everywhere in semi-open areas that includes dense shrub-growth, especially near human dwellings, gray catbirds are as at home in suitable urban habitats as they are in rural environments. Within these environs, catbirds seek out a host of insects and small fruits to eat. And like many other birds of the understory, catbirds also forage for food on the ground, scratching leaf litter as they search.  

No mention of the gray catbird should exclude the bird’s telltale call. Its hoarse, cat-like mew as mentioned previously is more than likely its claim to fame as an affiliate of mimid birds. Catbirds are aggressive birds that fiercely defend their nest and young from predators and are also known to destroy the eggs of brown-headed cowbirds that are purposely laid in their nests by female cowbirds.

Homeowners wishing to attract gray catbirds to their property would do well by having plenty of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs available. Native plants such as dogwood, serviceberry, nannyberry and winterberry are just a few species that catbirds not only feed on but also nest within.

Indeed, gray catbirds, secretive mimics that live and sing in the thickets of many of our backyards, are delightful summertime residents that provide us with plenty of reasons to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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