Tag Archives: Gray Catbird

Gray catbirds require some gentle coaxing to give up shy habits

The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.

One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.

Your first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when you hear what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, you may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal, with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

However, in a mood that appears to swing with the seasons, gray catbirds emerge again in late summer and early fall when they feast on such fruit as elderberries and wild cherries while making their whiny cacophony of calls from any tangle or thicket where they happen to be.

The catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella. The name is based upon the Latin term dūmus, which roughly translated means “thorny thicket.” Dumetella, in turn, means “dweller in the thornbushes” or “small bird of the thornbushes.” It’s a rather apt description for a bird fond of habitats often dominated by thorny vegetation. Older common names for the gray catbird included cat thrush and slate-colored mockingbird.

They are related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find them just different enough to warrant placing the gray catbird in its own genus. A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. Both catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

While not generally considered a bird to visit feeders, people have succeeded in attracting catbirds to feeders designed to offer grape jelly or orange slices. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees is the best means of attracting these fascinating birds to your yard and garden.

 

Kinglets are tiny in size, big in spirit

A flock of American Crows provided some drama on Sunday, Nov. 23. The crows, perhaps with good reason, didn’t appreciate finding a Red-tailed Hawk in their airspace. The flock spent around 20 minutes directing an aerial bombardment against the hawk, which finally got the hint and moved out of the territory claimed by the crows.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                           An American Crow mobs a Red-tailed Hawk that intruded into its territory.

I posted on Facebook about the incident, which prompted a response from Rita Schuettler. “I rarely know that a hawk is around until the crows up here start raising a ruckus,” Rita wrote. “It is fun to watch them chase the hawk all the way down the valley and outa here!”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                   This Gray Catbird, photographed on Nov. 23, represents a fairly late record of this species in Northeast Tennessee. Most catbirds migrate out of the region each fall to spend the winter farther south.

In addition to the fun observation with the hawk and crows, I discovered an unseasonably late Gray Catbird in my yard. I actually heard the catbird’s namesake cat-like scold vocalizations before I saw the bird. Catbirds are common birds in my yard from spring to fall, but they usually depart in early October. I thought that was the case this year, too, but then this straggler showed up. The catbird has put in some other appearance since its initial appearance on Saturday, Nov. 22.

In recent years, catbirds have been found on several of the Christmas Bird Count conducted in Northeast Tennessee, so it’s a distinct possibility that a few of these birds have taken to spending part of the winter here rather than flying south.

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With the recent cold weather, I’ve been seeing a few golden-crowned kinglets, as well as the closely related ruby-crowned kinglet, at my home.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                                      A Golden-crowned Kinglet is held securely during a bird-banding procedure. The crown of golden-yellow feather that gives the bird its name is clearly visible.

Both the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets are members of a family of tiny birds known collectively as kinglets and firecrests. They’re such tiny, energetic birds that they absolutely excel with the “cuteness” factor.

All kinglets are very tiny birds, as well as extremely active ones. They are also the only members of this family of birds found in North America. Four other species, however, are native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. The remaining species include goldcrest, common firecrest, Madeira firecrest and flamecrest, which is also known as the Taiwan firecrest.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                              Only the male Ruby-crowned Kinglet shows the small patch of red feathers atop the head that gives this bird its common name.

Kinglets, as their name suggests, are tiny birds. In fact, about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,” or “king.” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resemble the royal “crowns” of kings.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Side by side, the two species of North American kinglets are easy to identify. The golden-crowned kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The ruby-crowned kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but no striping. The golden-crowned kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the ruby-crowned kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed. Both sexes of the golden-crowned kinglet possess a yellow crown patch, but only the male ruby-crowned kinglet boasts a scarlet patch of feather atop the head.

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Photo Courtesy of Beth McPherson  This Golden-crowned Kinglet was in good hands as it recovered from striking a window.

Kinglets are active birds, foraging vigorously for small insects, and spiders. When foraging, both kinglet species have a habit of flicking their wings over the backs. Even if you can’t get a good look at the birds, this behavior helps contrast them from other small birds, including some warblers, wrens and the blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Golden-crowned kinglets are widespread in the region during the winter. During the summer months, head to the slopes of some of the region’s higher mountains to look for these tiny birds that nest at the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians. Ruby-crowned kinglets can also be found in the region during the winter, but extreme cold weather will often force these less cold-hardy birds to eke out the winter months farther south.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  A Ruby-crowned Kinglet forages for insect prey in the branches of a small tree.

Kinglets don’t typically visit feeders, but they do tend to join mixed flocks with membership consisting of such species as tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch. When traveling with such flocks, kinglets may visit the space around feeders but rarely take seeds or other fare offered at feeders.

Kinglets are surprisingly tame at time and often exhibit as much curiosity about us as we display toward them. They’re very active birds, however, constantly moving from perch to perch. These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe since they so rarely remain still. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsher weather of the winter months.