Gray Catbird

When one thinks of the word “catbird”, they might see it as an oxymoron. Yet again, further investigation into their lives reveals a much larger story. The Gray Catbird is a demure and plain bird that surprise birders and non-birders alike with their combination of musical and harsh calls. They derive their names from one such particular call that resembles the mewing of a cat. You can usually hear them from dense thickets and tangles of vines, observers can be surprised to find a bird rather than a cat calling out.

About Gray Catbirds

Gray Catbirds are related to Mockingbirds and Thrashers, and thus share the vocal abilities with those birds as well. They often copy the sounds of other species and join them together in order to make their own song. While their mewing calls are far from their only capabilities with their voices. Their vocal range is vast, and one can often hear the males using their loud songs to maintain a hold over their territories, a long song that can sometimes last for up to 10 minutes. They switch to softer versions of their songs when they are near the nest or when there is an intruder, and on some occasions, the females may even sing the quiet songs back to the males.

Few things are more rewarding than correctly identifying a bird in its natural habitat. These versatile singers are a perfect introduction for amateur birders to learn how to find and correctly identify a bird through a variety of natural clues that the earth gives us.

● Gray Catbird Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Gray Catbird Size, Eating Behavior, Habitat
● Gray Catbird Range and Migration, Nesting


Gray Catbird Color Pattern

Adults of both sexes are nearly indistinguishable from each other in both size and plumage. Adults have dark to blackish and neutral gray upperparts while their underparts reveal light to medium neutral gray color. They have a black crown, forehead, and tail, with the black markings on their crown resembling a cap. Their feathers under their tail are usually a chestnut color with a neutral gray edging with chestnut as well.

Juveniles are completely gray and lack the dark black cap and chestnut undertail of adults. However, they quickly molt into the adult plumes by their first fall. Their eyes are cloudy and gray as compared to the clear black irises of the adults.

Description and Identification

The easiest way to identify these birds is through their songs. In order to find them, look for the “mew” call. When males sing, they’re usually at the top of a dense thicket as they announce their presence. Some of these Catbirds will also come to investigate the area if you make a “pishing” sound in their vicinities.

Once you hear this bird, you can keep your eye out for a flash of slate gray in the tangles of vines. Their black crowns and rufous-brown patches under their tails identify these birds as a Gray Catbird. On occasion, you might even find them foraging on the ground as they hop along in order to find food.

Gray Catbird Song

The most notable traits of these catbirds lie in their songs. It may last for up to 10 minutes and consist of a series of syllables with short, continuous sounds that they separate with short pauses. The syllables themselves range in quality from musical whistles to squeaks, gurgles, whines, and harsh or nasal tones. They incorporate mimicry into their songs and mainly choose to imitate the calls of other birds in nearby habitats. Since each bird incorporates large amounts of improvisation, the exact nature of these mimicked calls is debatable.

They typically have three kinds of calls. The most common one is the harsh call that resembles the mewing of a cat. It can vary greatly in volume, tone, and quality between individuals throughout the year. The second call is the quirt call, a soft low-pitch sound that sounds like “quirt, whurt”, or “quitt”. The final call is the ratchet call, a loud, harsh chatter delivered in short bursts that sounds like “chek-chek-chek”.

Gray Catbird Size

Gray Catbirds are medium-size songbirds with slender builds. They are approximately 8.3–9.4 inches long and their broad, rounded wings have a wingspan of 8.7–11.8 inches. These Robin-size birds typically weigh between 0.8–2 ounces. They have fairly long legs and have a long, round, black tail with a narrow and straight bill. These birds are only slightly smaller than the related Northern Mockingbirds.

Gray Catbird Behavior

You can find these Catbirds hopping through low vegetation as they forage. They fly short distances at low heights just above the top of shrubs or through the small spaces among them. However, they generally avoid flying across large and open spaces. They generally travel through shrubs using a combination of hops and short, even flights.

Males are extremely territorial during spring and summer. They sing from visible perches and chase away any other intruder, including several other species of birds. Both sexes defend their own territory during the winter seasons, a period when most birds are not very territorial. During conflicts with other birds, Gray Catbirds might fluff up their breast and rump feathers, spread their tail, and open their bill towards the sky. They may chase each other early on during the breeding seasons.

These birds are monogamous, while some males mate with two females in different territories. Sometimes the male defends both territories. While at other times the male guards both the nests and provide the nestlings with food.

Gray Catbird Diet

During the breeding seasons, Gray Catbirds maintain insectivorous diets. They mainly eat ants, beetles, grasshoppers, midges, caterpillars, crickets, true bugs, and moths. They occasionally consume spiders and millipedes. When fruits are available, they may also consume holly berries, cherries, elderberries, poison ivy, greenbrier, bay, and blackberries.

Young nestlings have a diet of almost entirely insects. They consume sufficient amounts of protein at their early stages of life. More than half of the annual diet of adults is vegetable matter. Especially during the winter seasons when insect populations are relatively scarce. They also very rarely catch small fish. Gray Catbirds are occasional visitors to bird feeders. They also eat an unusual range of items like donuts, cheese, boiled potatoes, and corn flakes.

Gray Catbird Habitat

Gray Catbirds can reside in dense shrubs, vine tangles, and thickets of young trees in both summer and winter. They also live in the undergrowth, brush, thorn scrub, suburban gardens, clearings, roadsides, fencerows, abandoned farmlands, and residential areas with brushy growth. Gray Catbirds prefer dense and low growth of vegetation. They are most common in leafy thickets along the edges of woods, streams, shrubby swamps, and brushy fields. They generally avoid unbroken forests and coniferous woodlands.

Range and Migration

These birds are native to most of temperate North America east of the Rocky Mountains, with the winter migrations taking them towards south-eastern United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. They are long distant migrants, with rare cases of vagrancy being observed in the east of the American Cordillera, and even rarer cases of vagrancy in western Europe. Most begin their migrations towards their wintering destinations in the months of September or October, but more and more flocks seem to be extending their stays in their breeding range over the last few years. A minority of the populations found along the Atlantic coast of the United States are permanent residents of those regions and do not migrate away from their breeding grounds.

Gray Catbird Lifecycle

During the early weeks of the breeding season, males sing constantly during the mornings and the evenings, sometimes even at night, in hopes of finding a female. When they do, courtship commences with males chasing females and posturing and bowing with their wings drooped and tail raised. After mating, females lay a clutch of 1–6 eggs in a single brood, with the average number of broods in one season being between two and three. Often, Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of these Catbirds, following which the Cowbird eggs are punctured and then ejected from the nest.

Females incubate their broods mostly on their own. They can last for 12–15 days, while males even feed the females in some cases. After the eggs hatch, the condition of the nestlings is helpless as they are naked with closed eyes and are only partially covered with down feathers. The nestling period lasts for 10–11 days, after which the young leave the nests and start their own journeys.


It is unclear which member of the pair selects the nesting sites, but the decision is presumably made by the females. The locations are selected at horizontal branches hidden at the center of dense shrubs, small trees, or in vines like dogwood, hawthorn, cherry, rose, elderberry, grape, honeysuckle, and blackberry. Their nests can be set up anywhere
between 3–10 feet above the ground but they have been recorded to nest as high up as 60 feet.

The construction of the nest is undertaken by the females, but the males sometimes help with sourcing and bringing materials. It is a bulky, open cup that is woven out of twigs, straw, bark, mud, and sometimes pieces of surrounding trash. The inner lining is then added, and it consists of a finely woven layer of grass, hair, rootlets, and pine needles. These nests typically take 5–6 days to build and are around 5.5 inches across and 2 inches deep when finished.

Anatomy of a Gray Catbird

Gray Catbirds are slender songbirds with long, rounded, black tails and a narrow, straight bill. They have long legs and have broad, rounded wings that they use to glide in slow heights over their habitats of tangled vines and thickets. They can seem a little stout in appearance in some angles and seem to have the slightest hump on their backs. Their plumages are almost entirely slaty gray with light marks of black on their foreheads and crowns.

Final Thoughts

Human beings have been fascinated by the songs of birds since time immemorial. They have inspired music, poetry, art, and the very concept of beauty across multitudes of cultures around the world. Gray Catbirds might not be as well known as their Mockingbird cousins, but they are avid songsters too, and deserve equal amounts of interest. Their soft songs and harsher mewling sounds can catch the attention of individuals passing by, and sometimes even of birds of other species.

If you want to encounter these birds, you could try planting shrubs along with the areas near young deciduous trees in your backyard. It is important to remember that they prefer shrubs and your chances of encountering one increase when you bring their preferred habitat to them. They also love eating fruits, so you can try luring them with the plants of native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs like dogwood, winterberry, and serviceberries as well. If you follow all of these steps and then wait patiently, then maybe one day you will catch the harsh mewling melodies of this slaty Catbird in your home environment!


Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes

At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingGray Catbirds

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Gray Catbirds are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Gray Catbird Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Gray Catbird. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders ForGray Catbirds

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird HousesForGray Catbirds

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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