Birds & Blooms
The Cat’s Meow
Put out fresh fruit, plant berry-filled shrubs and listen for gray catbirds in early spring.
If you hear something that sounds like a cat screeching in the distance interspersed with bubbly chirping, you might wonder what all of the commotion is about. It’s probably a gray catbird doing what it does best—singing.
The catbird’s call is—to say the least—distinctive. But that harsh sound imitating a cat’s meow is just one of the noises these singers make. Catbirds carry more than 100 different tunes ranging from crooning to mimicry. That ability runs in the family. As a member of the Mimidae family, the catbird is closely related to mockingbirds and brown thrashers.
“You can tell a catbird’s song because it’s very long and highly variable,” explains Mike Webster, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. “It sounds improvised and they tend not to repeat notes, whereas a mockingbird will repeat notes several times.”
Once you find where the noise is coming from, look for a slate gray, medium-sized bird with a black cap and a patch of reddish-brown under the tail. Males and females appear identical, but males sing much more frequently. Energetic and lively, they actively hop from branch to shrub to tree, never staying still for long.
Catbirds spend their winters along the eastern and southern coasts of the United States, as well as tropical areas like Guatemala and Mexico. Come spring and summer, they settle throughout the U.S. with the exception of parts of the West and Southwest. They prefer vines, shrubs and other plants that offer plenty of cover.
It’s unusual to see a group of catbirds flocking together. Instead, a mating couple might call your backyard home, returning to the same nesting site every year.
Once she’s paired, the female constructs a nest with materials her mate brings, like twigs, paper, weeds, grass and leaves. A careful builder, she skillfully layers those findings so the finest are on the inside while the heavy-duty stuff protects the outside. She lays three or four eggs and incubates them for about two weeks. Babies fledge after a week or two, but the parents help them find food after they leave the nest for up to 12 days.
To attract catbirds to your backyard, plant shrubs or young trees. They don’t normally munch on birdseed; their favorite snack is berries. They especially enjoy the fruit from dogwood, winterberry and serviceberry plants.
If you don’t have room or happen to be looking for a less permanent option, put up oriole feeders full of fresh oranges or offer fruit-based jellies or jams. Catbirds are also drawn to raisins, peanut butter and fruit-flavored suet.