This secretive bird of dense thickets gets its name from the cat-like mew call that it makes. The Gray Catbird's song is an exuberant series of musical whistles and catlike meows interspersed with imitations of other birds' songs. It may start singing before dawn and continue until after dusk, being one of the last birds to settle in for the night. The Gray Catbird breeds across southern Canada and in all but the southwestern states. In winter it is found along the East Coast and around the Gulf of Mexico into Central America and the Caribbean. The Gray Catbird is fairly common in Tennessee from late April until October with a few individuals spending the winter scattered across the state.
Description: This is a plain gray, medium-sized songbird with a black cap, a long, black tail that is often cocked, and chestnut colored undertail coverts. The sexes are alike.
Weight: 1.3 oz
Voice: The male Gray Catbird sings a long series of variable squeaks, whistles, and melodious notes. These notes can include imitations of other birds' songs, frogs, or even mechanical sounds. The call is a very cat-like mew. Females will also sing softly on occasion.
Habitat: Found in dense, shrubby habitats, such as abandoned farmland, fencerows, roadsides, streamsides, forest edges, and some residential areas.
Diet: Insects and small fruits.
Nesting and reproduction: Gray Catbirds only defend territories in a limited area around the nest. Adults may leave their territory to feed with other catbirds in undefended areas. In Tennessee they often raise two broods.
Clutch Size: Usually 3 to 5 eggs with 4 eggs most common in Tennessee. Peak egg laying occurs in mid-May and extends into early July.
Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for about 14 days and is often fed by her mate.
Fledging: Both adults feed the young, which fledge in about 11 days. They remain dependent on the adults for another two weeks.
Nest: The bulky nest, mainly constructed by the female, is made of twigs, grasses, and weed stems and lined with finer material. It is placed in a dense shrub, a small tree, or in vines.
Status in Tennessee: The Gray Catbird is an uncommon to fairly common summer resident across the state and a rare winter resident. Most birds arrive in mid- to late April and depart by October. Numbers have declined significantly since 1980 in Tennessee. The reasons for the decline are not known, but a decrease in suitable nesting habitat resulting from maturing forests, and a trend toward "cleaner" farms with fewer fencerows may be a contributing factor.
Dynamic map of Gray Catbird eBird observations in Tennessee
- Gray Catbirds are able to sing such complicated songs partly because they have a complicated syrinx (song box) that allows them to sing two notes simultaneously.
- The male Gray Catbird will sing loudly when announcing or defending his territory and more softly when near the nest or when an intruding catbird is nearby. The female may sing the quiet song back to her mate.
- Unlike most songbirds Gray Catbirds can identify Brown-headed Cowbirds eggs and will eject them from their nests. This prevents catbirds from raising cowbird young at the expense of their own nestlings.
- The oldest known Gray Catbird in the wild was 17 years 11 months old.
Obsolete English Names: common catbird, northern catbird
Best places to see in Tennessee: This species is never easy to see but can be easily heard in dense shrubby habitats, especially in the eastern two-thirds of the state.
For more information:
Cimprich, D. A. and F. R. Moore. 1995. Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.