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A Bird in Hand

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Photo by Tom Munson Photo by Tom Munson

The Gray Catbird - the neighbor you didn't even know you had

What would compel a grown man—outside of hunting season, mind you—to get out of bed on a Saturday morning in order to chase birds with a pair of binoculars? Curiosity. I would guess that my primary interest in birding is simply one of curiosity. I am curious to know whom my feathered neighbors are and I am continuously surprised by who shows up in our neck of the woods. And few birds are more interesting or unusual than the gray catbird.

Say what? A catbird? Perhaps you have never heard of, let alone seen, a gray catbird? This might very well be one of those neighbors you didn’t even know you had.

Growing up, I spent half of my youth in Minnesota and the other half in Oregon. Though it was my grandfather in Crookston, Minnesota, who introduced me to the world of birds, it was my curiosity about a strange gray bird that caused it to become fully-fledged, so to speak. I remember as a child swinging on the tire swing outside the front of my home in Oregon, when I heard the mewing of a cat in the branches above me. Looking up, I expected to find a cat. Instead, I found a curious gray bird looking down at me. It was the source of the cat sounds. A bird mewing like a cat? And the hunt was on. I had to know what sort of bird sounded like a cat. As the library with its bird books was three miles from my house, I hit the road and walked the distance to town. Not only did I discover that this bird was the gray catbird, I also found out that it was an accidental in Oregon. That is, it was outside of its normal range. How interesting! A strange bird in a strange land.

But in our area it does belong, though most folks around here have probably never seen it. This is a curious fact I have discovered the past couple years writing this monthly column: many of the “common” birds I write about have never been seen by many of my readers, some of whom have lived their entire lives in this area. I guess it goes to shows the limits of how much many of us are out of touch with our surroundings. Golly!

Back to our featured bird. The gray catbird is a distinctive creature in many ways. It is smaller and slimmer than a robin and prefers dense shrubs to make its nest and raise its brood. As its name suggests, the bird is entirely gray. Males and females are identically colored. But keep an eye out for two important field marks. First, the small black cap on the top of its head. Second, the rusty colored feathers under its tail. This combination is unique to this bird. The eyes and beak are black, as well as the tail. But where the gray ends and the black begins can sometimes be tough to see. The catbird also flutters about like an Eastern Kingbird and at first glance you might mistake it for one.

But what really gives the catbird away is its calls. Yes, it mews like a cat. Though this is a distinctive call, it often isn’t very loud. Nonetheless, if you’ve come upon a bird that sounded like a cat, well, it probably was the catbird. As distinctive is the catbird’s other call. This is a loud, discombobulated repertoire of various bird songs all jumbled together. Think of it as a cross between a house finch and a song sparrow gone bad, but in a good way. In many ways this call reminds me of a Townsend Solitaire, though stronger, bolder, and even more confused. Distinctive and beautiful. If you want to partake in this little bit of glorious feathered operatic music, head for prime catbird territory: dense shrubs and thickets. The males will sit high and sing, until they see you. Then they duck into the dense foliage.

The catbird is a fine neighbor and one you’ll appreciate. Like many neighbors, you’re going to have to make the effort to knock on its doors, in a manner of speaking, but you’ll be glad you did. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

outdoors, recreation, gray catbird, birding, catbird

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