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The Singing Repertoire of the Catbird

Dear Bird Folks,

One of my favorite birds is the Gray Catbird. Its sweet personality really brightens my day. My book says catbirds are “mimics,” just like mockingbirds, but I don’t agree. I can easily hear other birds’ songs coming from mockingbirds, but all I hear from the catbirds is an assortment of twitters and tweets. Why are they called mimics?

–Shawn, Auburn, MA


You’re kidding me, Shawn,

Right? You really don’t hear catbirds doing any mimicking? Really? I think they are one of the best impressionists ever. They are excellent copycats. That last line was written to give you a hint. Do you get it now? “Copycats”? Meow? Catbirds don’t have the word “cat” in their name because they like to scratch expensive furniture, eat stinky cans of food or cough up fur balls. They are called catbirds because they do a great impression of the voice of a housecat. *

* I know catbirds don’t really try to impersonate housecats. Their “meow” call is given when they are agitated. It’s merely a coincidence that the two creatures sound the same. And even though most readers already knew this fact, I felt I had to set the record straight just in case anyone reading this is a purist, or a purr-ist.

You are quite right about mockingbirds. When it comes to imitating other birds’ songs, the Northern Mockingbird is the champ. When a mockingbird sings like a robin or a cardinal, it sounds just like a robin or cardinal. Their replications are so good they have been known to fool professional bird watchers (okay, maybe just me). Catbirds, on the other hand, find this kind of precise singing boring. There is no soul or interpretation. To a catbird, a mockingbird is nothing more than a feathered iPod, playing songs exactly the same way over and over. When a catbird sings, it combines the songs of several different birds and then adds a few notes of its own. The end result is a long combination of improvised notes, which creates a song that is unique and not likely to ever be repeated again. Catbirds have the creativity of a jazz singer. (I’m talking about a good jazz singer. Not the kind that gives everyone headaches.)

Catbirds are also crepuscular. I know that makes it sound like they have some kind of skin infection, but it means that they are active before sunrise and after sunset. They are one of the first birds to start singing in the morning and one of the last birds to finally shut up and go to bed at night. Their songs also tend to be rather long. Sometimes a single song may last ten minutes or more, with only the occasional guitar solo in the middle to break things up. Each of these songs may contain bits from dozens of other birds. However, the true number of songs copied is difficult to know for sure since catbirds often add their own interpretation to each note. In most cases the notes they sing are taken from local birds, but occasionally they’ll incorporate songs from birds that live thousands of miles away. In the spring, when catbirds return from Central America, some of them can be heard singing the songs of birds that are only found in the tropics. I wonder if this bugs the local birds. You know, like when someone returns from England and is suddenly speaking with a British accent. What’s up with that? They probably think it’s cute. It’s not.

Mockingbirds typically sing from exposed perches. They want to make sure that every bird knows about their territory. Catbirds aren’t as showy. They often sing their songs while remaining hidden in dense foliage. But that doesn’t mean they are shy birds. In fact, they are one of the few birds that actually seem to like humans. (They certainly are a lot friendlier than cardinals. That’s a paranoid bird if I’ve ever seen one.) This morning when I was filling the feeders at the store, a catbird flew down and landed at my feet (really). It just stared up at me as I filled the feeders. Suddenly, it noticed that I had left the backdoor open, and headed right over to it. The bird took a few hops and went inside the store (again, really). Being a stupid human, I did what all stupid humans do, and tried to talk to it. “Come on out Mr. Catbird,” I told it, but the catbird pretended not to understand and continued on in. After a few minutes of looking around the bird flew out of the store without buying a single thing. (Although, it must be planning to return because it left several “deposits” on some expensive items.)

Even though catbirds aren’t considered to be “feeder birds,” just about any yard, with a minimal amount of natural brush and cover (not a yard with a silly border-to-border lawn), can attract them. We put out raisins at my house and the birds can’t get enough of them. Catbirds will also eat hulled sunflower, suet, and mealworms. You can also offer them the dreaded grape jelly if you want to load them up with sugary, empty calories.

Catbirds do indeed mimic the songs of other birds, Shawn. However, it’s fair to say that their version of a particular bird’s song isn’t as identifiable as a song sung by the mimic-master, the mockingbird. A catbird’s song is more impressionistic because they like to include an additional assortment of twitters and tweets. (I’m talking about the good kind of twitters and tweets, not disturbing Tweeters and Tweets. Those come from Anthony Weiner.)