A cousin of the mockingbird, these medium-sized gray songbirds are common across the warmer parts of North America, where they are frequently heard (but less often seen) in backyards and parks. They often return to the same summer territory year after year.

Physical Description

Catbirds’ bodies are a uniform soft gray, with black caps, and rust-red feathers under their relatively long tails. They often perch with a lowered tail and appear hunchbacked. 

Size

Smaller and slimmer than an American robin, catbirds measure 8 to 9 inches (20 to 23 centimeters) long.

Native Habitat

Catbirds prefer low, dense vegetation, very often planted by humans; suburban forests and abandoned farmland. They are frequently found in tropical forests during the winter. 

Lifespan

 Catbirds live about 2.5 years in the wild.

Communication

Most gray catbird communication is accomplished through vocalization, body posture and feather displays. Their most famous call, and the one for which they are named, is a very catlike meow sound. They can also mimic the noises of other birds and even other animals like frogs. They can have a repertoire of up to 100 different syllables and their songs can last up to 10 minutes. 

Food/Eating Habits

Catbirds are omnivores that mostly eat berries and insects. They tend to peck off more fruit than they can actually eat. They are known to raid gardens for raspberries, cherries, blackberries and strawberries. Catbirds have been known to peck eggs of other species, though it is unclear if this serves to supplement their diets or to decrease competition for food in their chosen habitat.

Sleep Habits

They are active during the day, especially at dawn and dusk, and sleep at night. 

Social Structure

Catbirds form breeding pairs as soon as they arrive at the breeding grounds. Only males defend the breeding territory. Like many migratory songbirds, both males and females each defend their own territory in the non-breeding wintering grounds.

Reproduction and Development

Males sing to attract mates early in the breeding season. Female catbirds build big, deep nests in thick underbrush or shrubs. The males sometimes help by bringing nesting materials, including sticks, straw, tree bark and occasionally trash! Inside the nests are lined with fine, soft material including hair, grass and pine needles to cushion the eggs. Nests are usually about four feet off the ground, though they can also be on the ground itself or up as high as 60 feet. They lay three to five turquoise-colored eggs in each clutch and can have two to three clutches a season.

The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 15 days, while the male guards her and the nest. After hatching, both parents feed nestlings for 10 to 11 days until they are big enough to leave the nest.

Brown-headed cowbirds often lay their eggs in the nests of catbirds and other species. Catbirds, however, typically distinguish between their eggs and those of cowbirds. Mothers seem to scrutinize the first egg they lay and then destroy any eggs that look different thereafter.

Conservation Efforts

Climate change and habitat destruction, especially along coasts, are among the biggest threats gray catbirds face. 

Help this Species

  • Be a responsible cat owner, and keep cats indoors or under restraint when outside. Never release animals that have been kept as pets into the wild.
  • Plant native flowers in your garden to help feed resident and migrating pollinators. You'll make your lawn beautiful and help wildlife at the same time!
  • Growing, transporting and preparing food uses a lot of resources, so choose local, seasonal produce when possible. A significant amount of food waste also ends up in landfills, so only buy what you can eat.
  • Share the story of this animal with others. Simply increasing awareness and educating others about the threats invasive species pose to local ecosystems can help protect native environments.

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