The Gray Catbird is one species that I have become acquainted with since I started feeding the birds. They are fairly common, and now that I know what I am looking for, I seem to see them everywhere. But I honestly never noticed them before, which is really a shame. While they may not be colorful songbirds, they are beautiful in their own, subtle way.
According to most field guides, Catbirds are more often heard than seen. While that might be the case if you are walking on an unfamiliar path, in general, I find that if you hear a Gray Catbird call and stop to look for it, you will see it. They aren’t particularly shy birds. They also aren’t small birds that are able to easily hide, unless the vegetation is very thick. I find that they tend to exhibit the bold personality of most birds their size (at nine inches they are about the same size as an American Robin or Kingbird).
So don’t be discouraged by what the field guides say. If you want to see a Gray Catbird, just keep looking for one. Of course you will need to know what you are looking for. All Catbirds look similar, even the juveniles quickly develop to look like their parents. As its name implies, the Gray Catbird is primarily gray, a very pretty slate gray. The Catbird does have other colors in distinct areas, including a black hood or cap on its head. Its beak and legs are also black, as are its penetrating, large black eyes. If you are lucky you will also spot a flash of rusty red that can be seen under the Catbird’s tail and on its butt. You many have more chances to see this patch of rust than you would think, as the Catbird often uses its tail as a rudder for balance. As a result, you will often see a Catbird carefully perched, with its tail pointed toward the sky. This rusty section under its tail also plays a part in attracting a mate, with males showing their rusty bottoms to potential mates at the end of a several part mating ritual.
But even beyond looks, it is the sound of the Gray Catbird that lets you know of its presence. The origin of their common name gives you a big hint. The Catbird is known for the meowing sound it sometimes makes. Don’t believe me? Check out this link, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gray_Catbird/sounds. Of course the meow isn’t the only call a Catbird can make. They do sing in other tones and were known by the Chippewa Indians as Bird That Cries With Grief because of the mournful cry they make. The Gray Catbird has also been known to mimic other birds. Unlike the Northern Mockingbird or other species that copy sounds, the Catbird does not repeat a song or sound more than once.
Keep an eye out for Catbirds in shrubs. They do like the cover of dense forests, but that can include spaces in parks or even wooded backyards. They like to eat both insects and fruit/berries so you can often see and hear them foraging in leaf piles. That being said, they do come to feeders. I have seen them at seed, suet and jelly feeders, and they aren’t shy of their fellow diners in the least. According to the field guides, the babies are fed exclusively on insects alone. However, I have witnessed Catbirds taking mouthfuls of suet off to nesting young, so you have a lot of food options to attract them to your space.
Gray Catbirds are not a year round resident of New Jersey, with the exception of the shore and southern counties. They usually depart for warmer living by late September, returning to meow at us again by late April. So fill your feeders and keep your eyes peeled, your ears ready and maybe you will spot a Gray Catbird yourself!