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 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)
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)
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)
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)
The oldest reported gray catbird lived for ten years and eleven months. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)
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)
We have no information about the home range size of gray catbirds at this time.
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)
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)
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)
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)
Gray catbirds are sometimes considered a pest because they eat fruit such as blueberries and raspberries. (Cimprich and Moore, 1995)
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)
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)
Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.
Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Terri Pinkoski (author), University of Alberta, Cindy Paszkowski (editor), University of Alberta.
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.