July: Gray Catbird
We have all been there – the moment where we are walking through the woods and start attuning our ears to the bird songs that echo from the treetops. But sometimes, no matter how much we strain to listen to any one of the calls we hear, we just cannot seem to identify what in the world is making that noise. A sparrow? Or a warbler? Maybe a woodpecker? Ugh. We have all been left a bit disheartened after not being able to figure out what that mystery song is.
But before you hang up your hat and binoculars for good, July’s bird of the month, the Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), can help make anyone walking through the forest feel like a professional. With its lilting mew-like call often heard sounding out of thickets and vine growth, the Gray Catbird’s call is a great one to start your identification practice.
This bird is undoubtedly best known for its call, a unique series of cat-like mews and harsh caws. What some people do not know though is that Gray Catbirds are musical geniuses. They are relatives to the mockingbird and the thrasher, birds also known for beautiful calls. The Gray Catbird will in fact copy the melodies of other birds it lives around, rearrange them, and string them together to produce some of the best solo improvisation in the animal kingdom. Some of these songs can last up to 10 minutes, a true forest “remix” of the bird community. Males will flaunt this vocal ability the most to reinforce their claim to a given territory, and they will belt out their imitative notes from the top of bushes to put on a concert for all to hear. Sometimes females will mimic the male’s song and quietly sing it back to him as well.
While their song is melodious, the Gray Catbird’s looks are a bit more subtle. They do live up to their name, as they are a mostly gray bird with a charcoal-colored cap. You can find these birds skulking about in a thicket like their taxonomy name suggests – Dumetella means small thicket. Attract Gray Catbirds to your own yard by giving them the same space to hide and sing from by planting shrubs near and underneath deciduous trees. Fruit-bearing trees also attract these birds, too, so dogwood, winterberry, and serviceberry are all great candidates.
As if the sweet tune of the Gray Catbird wasn’t enough to help us enjoy the outdoors this summer, these birds have recently stepped up to aid in the fight that Philadelphia has been waging since 2014. Laternflies – the brightly colored pest that has gripped Pennsylvania and surrounding states in recent years – has a new predator in town. If you haven’t already found a loathing for these bad bugs, lanternflies have been destroying trees all over the area. While previously thought that the insects didn’t have any natural predators, it has been consistently reported by local birders and confirmed by research at Pennsylvania State University that Gray Catbirds have been gradually adding lanternfly to their diet. Among others chowing down are Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Tufted Titmice, as well as praying mantises in the insect world. If you haven’t thanked a Gray Catbird thus far this summer, make sure you do!
For more information about the Gray Catbird, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for advice on what types of feeders may attract this bird or other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.