Monday, November 21, 2005



In the warmer months this sound emanates from the bushes alongside trails and near buildings. One of the more distinctive bird calls, it alerts the listener to the presence of a gray catbird. It is frequently one of the first calls a birdwatcher can learn to recognize. Even non-birders that I know can point out this call.

The call earned this bird the English name catbird. The call can alternately sound like a cat mewing or a baby crying. (See here and here for examples.) To me it has often appeared to say a drawn-out chewy!. The single-note call, of course, is not its only vocalization. Like other members of the family Mimidae, which includes mockingbirds and thrashers, its song consists of a series of imitations of other bird songs. (See here for an example.) The call, though, is what sets it apart. Some find it amusing, others find it odd, still others have found it annoying:

The catbirds have such an attractive song that it is extremely irritating that at any moment they may interrupt it to mew and squeal.
- Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography, 1920 (quoted in Jen Hill, ed., An Exhiliration of Wings)
The gray catbird's Latinized name, Dumetella carolinensis, refers to a behavioral characteristic - its preference for underbrush habitats. (Dumeta are thornbushes or thickets.) Catbirds nest most commonly along streams or in other wetland areas. The edge habitats formed by human disturbance may become catbird territory as well.

While gray catbirds are common here in the summer, and ubiquitous during migration, their numbers drop substantially for the colder months. Most head south to winter along the Gulf Coast or in Central America. A few do linger for the winter, especially along the coast; there are almost always sightings in the area through December, January, and February.