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gray catbird

Dumetella carolinensis

What do they look like?

Gray catbirds are medium-sized birds that have a dark gray body, a black cap and black tail feathers. They have a chestnut patch underneath the tail feathers. Eastern populations are generally darker grey than western populations. Gray catbirds have short rounded wings and long rounded tail feathers. They have a short black bill, black eyes, and black feet and legs. They range from 21 to 24 cm long, and weigh 23 to 56 grams.

Gray catbirds are monomorphic birds, meaning that males and females look alike. Chicks are covered in brown or dark grey down. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995; National Geographic Society, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    23 to 56 g
    0.81 to 1.97 oz
  • Range length
    21 to 24 cm
    8.27 to 9.45 in

Where do they live?

Gray catbirds are native to the Nearctic region. They breed in north, central and eastern United States (from Oregon to New Mexico, to along the East coast), and south-central and western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). During the winter they live in the extreme southeastern United States, along the east coast of Mexico, and in the Caribbean Islands. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Gray catbirds live in dense thickets of shrubs and vines within woodlands, and are occasionally found in residential areas. They are also found around some forest edges and clearings, along roadsides, fencerows, abandoned farmland and streamsides. They prefer areas without many conifer trees. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995; National Geographic Society, 1999)

How do they reproduce?

Gray catbirds are monogamous. Breeding pairs form soon after the catbirds arrive on the breeding grounds in the spring. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

Gray catbirds breed between April and early August. They usually raise two broods per season. The female builds a bulky, open nest that is low to the ground (within 2 m). The nests are made from twigs, scraps, and paper bits. The female then lays 1 to 5 (usually 3 or 4) turquoise-colored eggs. The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days. The young are altricial (helpless) when they hatch, and the parents shade them in the nest by perching on the rim with their wings spread and breast feathers fluffed. The male and female both feed chicks. The chicks leave the nest after 10 to 11 days, but the parents continue to feed them for up to 12 days more. Gray catbirds mate in the first year after they have hatched. (Bird Neighbors: Catbird, 2000; Cimprich and Moore, 1995; National Geographic Society, 1999)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Gray catbirds breed during the spring and summer. They usually raise two broods per season.
  • Breeding season
    Gray catbirds breed between April and early August.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 5
  • Average eggs per season
    3.5
  • Average eggs per season
    4
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 14 days
  • Range fledging age
    10 to 11 days
  • Range time to independence
    12 (high) days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    365 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    365 days
    AnAge

Gray catbirds are born altricial, which means they cannot take care of themselves. Both males and females feed the young, who only eat small invertebrates. Parents shade the young from the sun by perching on the rim of the nest with their wings spread and breast feathers fluffed. The young fledge 10 to 11 days after hatching. The parents continue to feed them for up to 12 days longer. (Bird Neighbors: Catbird, 2000; Cimprich and Moore, 1995; National Geographic Society, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

The oldest reported gray catbird lived for ten years and eleven months. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

How do they behave?

Gray catbirds are migratory and diurnal, which means they are active during the day. Pairs are territorial during the breeding season and in winter, but during migration they travel in flocks of about 10 to 15 birds. Gray Catbirds will almost never return to the same breeding site year after year.

Gray catbirds tends to fly low and for short distances from perch to perch. They prefer not to fly over wide, open spaces. (Bird Neighbors: Catbird, 2000; Cimprich and Moore, 1995; National Geographic Society, 1999)

  • Range territory size
    0.002 to 0.0041 km^2

Home Range

We have no information about the home range size of gray catbirds at this time.

How do they communicate with each other?

Gray catbirds communicate visually, by how they hold their head or how their feathers are positioned. They also communicate using calls and songs. Gray catbirds are named for their "mew"-like song, which sounds like a cat. However, they are skilled songsters, and can make more than 100 different types of sounds, including whistles, harsh chatters and squeaks. They can even mimic other birds, tree frogs and other mechanical sounds that they hear. Gray catbirds are also known to sing in duet. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

What do they eat?

Gray catbirds search for food (called foraging) in treetops and on the ground. They are omnivores, eating mostly insects and fruits. Some of the insects they eat are ants, beetles, flies, caterpillars and moths, including gypsy moths, spiders, and aphids. Gray catbirds also eat small fruits from a number of different plants. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Snakes, rats, foxes, domestic cats, squirrels and chipmunks, raccoons, blue jays, American crows and common grackles prey on catbird eggs and chicks. Adult catbirds are sometimes hunted by raptors such as red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, and peregrine falcons.

Gray catbirds respond aggressively towards predators. They flash their wings and tails at predators and make "quirt" and "mew" calls. They may even attack and peck at predators that come near the nest. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Gray catbirds are important insect predators. They may be important in controlling gypsy moths, which eat the leaves off of trees. Gray catbirds also provide food for their predators. They are hosts for a number of parasites, including lice, hippoboscid flies and ticks.

Brown-headed cowbirds are nest parasites that often lay their eggs in gray catbird nests. However, gray catbirds are one of the few bird species that is able to learn to recognize cowbird eggs, and to remove them from the nest. Gray catbirds probably affect brown-headed cowbird populations by destroying their eggs. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

Do they cause problems?

Gray catbirds are sometimes considered a pest because they eat fruit such as blueberries and raspberries. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • crop pest

How do they interact with us?

Gray catbirds eat insects, which are often pests to humans. They may particularly important in controlling damaging species of moth and butterfly larvae, such as gypsy moth caterpillars. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Gray catbirds may benefit from human activity. They commonly make their homes in the kinds of scrubby, dense habitats that are created by deforestation and regrowth. However, their habitat has also been destroyed by clearing fields for agriculture. Gray catbirds are considered to be a common bird species, but they seem to have become less common recently. There are about 10,000,000 gray catbirds in the world. They are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Terri Pinkoski (author), University of Alberta, Cindy Paszkowski (editor), University of Alberta.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

arboreal

Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
duets

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate

endothermic

animals that generate their own body heat through metabolic processes.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

mimicry

imitates a communication signal or appearance of another kind of organism

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

taiga

this biome is characterized by large expanses of coniferous forest, there is an extended cold season and heavy snowfall.

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Bird Neighbors: Catbird, 2000. "Northern Michigan Birding Website" (On-line). Accessed November 20, 2000 at www.northbirding.com/idtraining/guide/ch5sec3.htm#CATBIRD.

Cimprich, D., F. Moore. 1995. Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America No. 167. Washington, D.C.: The Academy of Natural Sciences and Philadelphia, PA: The American Ornithologists' Union.

National Geographic Society, 1999. Field Guide to the Birds of North America (third edition). Washington, DC.: National Geographic Society.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Pinkoski, T. 2001. "Dumetella carolinensis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 17, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Dumetella_carolinensis/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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