Species Spotlight: Grey Catbird

By Mack Swenson on September 7, 2022 in Blog

Grey Catbird perched in a tree, looking at the camera.You hear it before you see it. A strange, meow-like call seeming to emanate from a nearby thicket. Is that a cat? Then, suddenly, the noise morphs into an elaborate, chaotic and seemingly unending song. As you approach the thicket, a flash of gray shoots from the thicket and perches in a young sapling farther away. No, not a cat, but a bird.

Meet the Gray Catbird. With a drab appearance starkly contrasting its bold and quirky personality, the Gray Catbird is commonly found throughout Iowa. It annually migrates from its breeding ground in the northern U.S. and southern Canada to the southern U.S., Mexico and Central America, though it lives year-round along a narrow strip of the Atlantic seaboard. Gray Catbirds are relatives of mockingbirds and thrashers, with whom they share the ability to mimic the sounds of other bird species and tree frog calls—or even mechanical and manmade sounds. Males will perform improvisational songs consisting of chirps, squeaks, whistles, whines and gurgles for up to 10 minutes.

Ever bold, male Gray Catbirds will loudly proclaim their territory with song, and their female counterparts are no pushovers. Brown-headed Cowbirds that attempt to parasitize Gray Catbird nests are deftly thwarted by the diligent mother, who punctures and ejects foreign eggs not matching her  original clutch. Twigs, weed, grass, leaves and sometimes trash are all fair game for Gray Catbird nests, which—like the bird itself—are most often found in thickets, dense shrubs, briar tangles or low trees. To say that the Gray Catbird spends a significant amount of time in low-lying brush would be an understatement. The bird’s life revolves around the few feet from the forest floor to the taller saplings. Even in this limited range, plenty of low-hanging berries and insects keep the Gray Catbird well-fed.

If you know where to look—and more so, what to listen for—you’ll have no problem finding these loud, unabashed critters.