Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinesis

Description:

The Gray Catbird was named for its mewing call, although few people would mistake the sound of this bird for that of an actual cat.

Identification:

General: A member of the Mimid family the Gray Catbird is names for its cat like call. Like many members of the Mimidae it also mimics the songs of other birds, as well as those of tree frogs, and even mechanical sounds. The Gray Catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella, which means “small thicket” which is the perfect description of the habitat favoured by this skulking bird.

Small (length 21–24 cm, mass 23–56 g) with relatively short wings and long tail; both wings and tail rounded. Three to 4 long bristles (6–8 mm) at base of straight bill. Upperparts of adult dark to blackish neutral gray, underparts light to medium neutral gray. Crown, forehead, and tail black. Undertail-coverts chestnut or neutral gray edged chestnut.

Adult Male: Sexes indistinguishable.

Juvenile: Juveniles are even plainer in colouration than adults, with buffy undertail coverts

Similar Species: Northern Mockingbird has white on its wings and tail and is larger than Gray catbird. Townsend’s Solitaire’s are grayer with a pale eyering and no black cap or rufous undertail coverts. The behaviour is also very different from a catbird, sitting on high, exposed perches. Catbirds are much grayer, with a black cap, long tail, and thinner bill than either female Brown-headed Cowbirds or female Brewer's Blackbirds.

Behavior: Flights typically short and low, just above top of shrubs or through small spaces among them; avoids flying across large, open space. Wingbeat tempo is constant, even. Hops when moving along branches. Travels through shrubs using combination of hopping and short flights. In thickets setting, it builds a bulky, open nest, usually within two meters of the ground. Although Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) parasitize the Gray Catbird, they rarely are successful. This catbird is one of only about a dozen species known to recognize cowbird eggs and eject them from its nest—an ability that is learned, not innate. On rare occasions, this learning goes awry and an individual may come to recognize cowbird eggs as its own and reject catbird eggs as they are laid.

Habitat: The genus name, Dumetella, meaning “small thicket,” accurately reflects the Gray Catbird’s habitat: dense, shrubby vegetation. Throughout range found in dense shrubs or vine tangles; most abundant in shrub-sapling-stage successional habitats. Gray Catbird density increases linearly with shrub density. Also found in forest edges and clearings, roadsides, fencerows, abandoned farmland and home sites, pine plantations, streamsides, and some residential areas.

Information:

Like other species in the family Mimidae, this bird displays considerable vocal versatility. Part of this ability stems from the structure of its syrinx. Because both sides of this vocal organ are able to operate independently, the Gray Catbird can sing with two voices at the same time. This species’ song is a long series of short syllables delivered in rapid sequence. Its repertoire may include syllables of more than 100 different types varying from whistles to harsh chatters, squeaks, and even mimicry. These are sung in seemingly random order at an uneven tempo, resulting in what often sounds like an improvised babble of notes occasionally spiced with the familiar mew.

Conservation Status:

BC Yellow, COSEWIC n/a, Global G5 (1996). Because this species prefers early successional habitats, it probably benefits from some human activity. For example, regenerating cutovers provide nesting habitat in otherwise unsuitable forest. Likewise, suburbanization of wooded areas, creation of forest edge by road or utility right-of-way construction, and planting of shrubbery around homes and offices have probably increased habitat availability on breeding grounds. Conversely, elimination of fencerows surrounding agricultural fields has likely decreased habitat at the same time. Because this species’ wintering grounds are largely coastal (areas of rapid human population growth and construction), potential for human impacts there are great. During migration, large numbers are occasionally killed by colliding with towers.
 

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