A master mimic the catbird, along with thrashers and the northern mockingbird, all in the family Mimidae, are so classified because of their skill at mimicking other bird species and even other animals, including frogs. The brown thrasher, considered the champion mimic, can sing up to 2,000 different songs. Birds in other families such as the African gray parrots are in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a vocabulary of 1,000 words! Even European starlings are accomplished mimics of not only birds, but also motorcycles and tea kettles. You cannot make this stuff up!
The catbird is best known for the cat-like mewing calls that give the species its common name. Males tend to sing from a perch at the top of a tree or shrub. The theory is that the male with the largest repertoire, or greatest variety, of songs is the most successful in finding a mate. More songs appear to correlate with more experience. He uses a loud song to proclaim his territory and a softer version of his song is sung when he is closer to the nest or when another bird is in his territory. The well developed songbird syrinx, or vocal organ, is unusual in that both sides can operate independently so the birds can make two sounds at one time. Catbirds can produce over 100 different sounds and sing a song that lasts ten minutes.
The catbird’s genus, Dumetella, means “small thicket” in reference to its preferred habitat. The species is carolinensis. Catbirds are about the size of a robin, between 8.3-9.4 inches with a wingspan of 8.7-11.8 inches. They are gray with a black cap, have a long tail and cinnamon-brown color under the tail, an area called the undertail coverts.
The females build the nest in about 5-6 days. When completed the nest measures about 5 ½ inches across and 2 inches deep and is built of twigs, straw, bark, mud, grass, pine needles and sometimes trash. They have a clutch of 1-6, turquoise green, sometimes red spotted eggs. The incubation period is about 2 weeks and after they hatch they will spend another week and a half in the nest before they fledge. Smithsonian scientists report fledgling catbirds in suburban habitats are very vulnerable to predators with 79% being killed before reaching adulthood. In a study conducted in three suburbs outside Washington, D.C. forty seven percent of the deaths were connected to domestic cats. If a catbird is lucky it can live to a record 17 years ll months, with the normal lifespan being 10 years. Catbirds that nest in New England or the mid-Atlantic states are likely to spend the winter in Florida or the Caribbean. When they migrate back it may very well be the same catbird returning to your backyard year after year.
Male and female catbirds are territorial even during the winter when territoriality is not common. They will also sometimes destroy eggs and nestlings of other birds. This is advantageous at some times. The native brown-headed cowbird is a brood parasite, meaning it lays its eggs in nests of other species. A female cowbird doesn’t even attempt to build a nest of her own, but instead will look for an unsuspecting host and sneak into the nest when the other bird is away. She will damage or remove one or more eggs and replace it with an egg, or eggs, of her own. The other birds will raise the young cowbirds often at the expense of their own offspring. The catbird is too wise for this. The female catbird recognizes the cowbird eggs and will destroy and remove them.
Some birds use their feet, but catbirds use their bills to forage for ants, bettles, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, larvae and spiders, flipping over leaves and twigs to find their next meal. Their diet also includes a variety of berries and other fruits.
A group of catbirds is called a “mewing” or a “seat” of catbirds. A “catbird seat” is a reference to a position of great prominence or advantage. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, legendary baseball announcer Red Barber used the expression “sitting in the catbird seat”, meaning a baseball player was “sitting pretty” like a batter with three balls and no strikes. It is believed this expression originally came from the 1942 short story by James Thurber, “The Catbird Seat”.
Next time you see a catbird sitting high up on his perch singing an impressive song you might want to check around to see who he is trying to impress.
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The Cornell Lab K-12 Education