Gray catbird. Fishhawk

 

Bubbling tweets, chirps and gurgles floated out of a wedge of dense scrub and shrubs along the road. Occasionally, I recognized part of a song from another bird. Then, I heard a mewing sound like a cat, but the singer quickly moved on improvising so that it seldom repeated the same note. I could see the shadow of bird, a little smaller than a robin, moving in the undergrowth. Suddenly, a dark gray bird popped out of the tangle and perched on a low vine. It sported a dark cap and when it turned, I could see a rusty, dull red color under its tail. This was a Gray Catbird. (Photo by fishhawk.)

Many birds in our area are known for their singing abilities. Catbirds are unique in a number of ways. They are among a group of singers known as mimics which means they copy songs of other birds. Catbirds imitate the songs of dozens of birds.

Catbirds are different in another way. Most song birds learn their songs very early after they leave the nest. Robins learn to sing robin songs. Chickadees learn to sing chickadee songs. Catbirds seem to be different. They don’t learn a particular song. Instead, their amazing vocal abilities allow them to pick and choose among a wide range of songs and sounds around them. They mix these together experimenting like a jazz musician. They break all the rules other birds seem to obey.

Physically, catbirds are equipped to sing these improvisational songs. They are built with a double syrinx. Humans don’t have syrinx. We have a voice box. This means that the catbird can sing two different songs at once. In other words, the catbird is its own jazz band.

You might ask how do you know when you are hearing a catbird versus some other bird singing if you don’t see it? Actually, that isn’t as tricky as you think. Mockingbirds, another type of mimic, imitate other birds they hear, too. The mockingbird, however, tends to sing the song two or three times before moving on to the next. It will also come back again and again to a favorite song. That’s not the catbird’s approach. When I hear a soft, bubbling melody in dense shrubs that sounds like dozens of different birds but never repeats itself, then I am pretty sure it’s a catbird. If I stand there long enough, I’ll almost always hear an occasional “mew” sound for which it’s named.

All of this creative singing makes this otherwise shy, dull colored bird one of my personal favorites. The next time you visit Valentine Farm listen and watch for this jazz singer and its mate that nests routinely next to the road before you cross the culvert into the corn field.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME. To contact James, send your emails to [email protected]


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