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Gray Catbird

Common Name: Gray Catbird.

Scientific Name: Dumetella Carolinensis.

What to look for?  Described as a somber gray bird, Gray Catbirds are slender, medium-sized songbirds. They are relatives of mockingbirds and thrashers, and they share that group’s vocal abilities. Gray Catbirds are gray overall with a darker cap. They have long, rounded, black tails with bright cinnamon feathers under the tail. Their bill is narrow and straight. Gray Catbirds are fairly long legged and have broad, rounded wings. They often perch holding their tail down giving it a hunchbacked look.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Hopping through shrubs around our ponds! Or hanging around an Oriole feeder. While Gray Catbirds are quite secretive, you may spot them on occasion from spring through fall.

How big are they? The Gray Catbird averages approximately nine (9) inches in length. And their wingspan is just over eleven (11) inches. They weigh approximately one (1) to two (2) ounces.

What are their flight patterns? The flight of the Grey Catbird is characterized by constant wing beats. They tend to fly low and for short distances from perch to perch. They don’t like to fly over wide or open spaces. The Gray Catbird flies just above the tops of shrubs or through small openings in the vegetation.

How else do they behave? Gray Catbirds are secretive but energetic birds. They hop and flutter from branch to branch through tangles of vegetation. Singing males will sit high atop shrubs and small trees. Gray Catbirds are reluctant to fly across open areas, preferring quick, low flights over vegetation. Male Gray Catbirds are territorial during spring and summer, singing from prominent perches and chasing away intruders including several other species of birds. Males and females defend their own territories during winter, a time when territoriality is uncommon in many species. And they are one of the few bird species that is able to learn to recognize cowbird eggs, and to eject them from the nest.

What’s for dinner? Mostly insects and berries. Gray Catbirds eat mainly ants, beetles, grasshoppers, midges, caterpillars, and moths. When fruits are available, they also eat holly berries, cherries, elderberries, poison ivy, greenbrier, bay, and blackberries. They do most foraging on the ground, flipping leaves aside with bill as it seeks insects.

Where do they take up residence? Gray Catbirds can be found across most of the United States, southern Canada, Mexico, and Central America. They are common throughout the northern, central, and eastern United States and southern Canada during the summer - and they spend time here in Illinois. You can find Gray Catbirds residing in dense thickets of shrubs and vines within woodlands, and around some forest edges and clearings.

Where do they breed and nest? Gray Catbirds breed between April and early August. They usually raise two broods per season. They nest on horizontal branches hidden at the center of dense shrubs, small trees, or in vines. The female will lay from one (1) to eight (8) eggs. The incubation period is about fifteen (15) days. Young leave the nest about ten (10) days after hatching.

Where do they migrate? Gray Catbirds from across North America spend winters along the Gulf Coast and all the way down into Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Spring migration ranges from March to May, and in the fall ranges from late August to November. Gray Catbirds apparently migrate mostly at night.

What is their conservation status? There is low conservation concern. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Gray Catbird populations have been stable throughout their range over the last several decades. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 29 million. Gray Catbirds rated an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score.

Do they make any interesting sounds? 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. They can have a repertoire of nearly 100 different syllables and their songs can last up to 10 minutes. Here is a link to the sounds of the Gray Catbird.

Interesting Facts About the Gray Catbird:

  • The Gray Catbird’s genus name, Dumetella, means “small thicket,” which is its preferred habitat of deep thickets and shrubs.

  • Their ability to mimic vocalizations of other species may help males impress mates.

  • Catbirds’ calls are often confused with cats’ meows.

  • The Gray Catbird’s long song may last for up to 10 minutes.

  • The idiom "sitting in the catbird seat" arose from the behavior of the Gray Catbird singing from a high perch.

  • The oldest known Gray Catbird was approximately 17 years old, although they typically live about 2.5 years in the wild.

For more information on the Gray Catbird and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society, Smithsonian Institute’s National Zoo, and the Illinois DNR.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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