Gray Catbird: Mimic Extraordinaire

He’s the musical sort.  He sings with the robins and cardinals; not just his song, but theirs, too.  First he mimicked the robins’ morning song, then he imitated the cardinals and red-eyed vireos.  He blended their calls into his own unique arrangement of a song with many repeated phrases.  I suspected a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) when I heard his “meow”-like call.  Catbirds skulk around in thickets and tangled hedges, so are often hard to see (I haven’t been able to photograph him).  Later, the cardinal pair that frequents our backyard chased him out of the arbor vitae hedge and I spotted him.

He’s a fine looking charcoal-gray bird, about the size of a small American robin, with a black cap and a rusty patch under his tail.  Like brown thrashers and mockingbirds, gray catbirds have the ability to imitate the songs and calls of other birds, creatures and even machines.  Female catbirds sing too, but more softly and infrequently than their mates.

After declaring his territory for three or four days, he began a nighttime serenade, which he continued nightly for three weeks.  At his most vocal, he started singing shortly past midnight.  His song alone filled the night air and varied from melodious bird calls, to squeaks, whistles and other sharp, clear sounds.  He sings to defend his territory and to attract a mate.  Most recently, he’s added part of the American goldfinch’s call to his repertoire. He may mimic fragments of other avian songs too, but I am only certain of the four I’ve mentioned.  He often returns to the hedge to sing at dawn, though no longer with the same intensity and frequency.

Does it matter that catbirds imitate other birds’ songs and calls?   The theory, according to Greg Budney, audio curator at Cornell’s Macauley Library, is that the greater intricacy of a male catbird’s song demonstrates his greater experience with life and survival — and therefore makes him a stronger candidate for a good mate.  There’s an interesting, short video that features a catbird mimicking several songs of other bird species and a chorus frog.  Budney identifies each imitated song and briefly explains his theory.

I’m sure our catbird’s a fine fellow and mate — but I just appreciate hearing his joyful noise in the garden.  Anyone else have catbirds in their yard, garden or woods?