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A Bird’s View from Winds Way | The Grey Catbird

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June 26, 2020

Nancy Gilbert

Nancy shares her love of our feathered friends in a new monthly column.

Lately I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with catbirds. How is that, you ask? We have at least 3 nesting pairs on our small farm, each with its own distinct territory. And while these birds tend to be solitary and secretive, I’ve noticed that they often flit around in the shrubs and small trees where I’m gardening, entertaining me with their distinctive cat-like mew as well as their wide-ranging collection of gurgles, whistles and parts of other birds’ songs.

Gray Catbirds are wonderful mimics, much like their well-known Mockingbird relative.

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For the last several years, we’ve had a catbird that likes to join us for lunch. Although we can’t be sure it’s the same bird every year, the arrival date of May 1st has remained the same for three years running. Knowing they are fruit eaters, I started leaving a few grapes on the armrest of my Adirondack chair to see if I could entice the bird closer. And indeed he or she learned to recognize the sound of the kitchen screen door closing as we brought our lunch tray outside.

He or she would watch us from the branches of a near-by witch hazel or magnolia, waiting for us to leave before gobbling down the proffered treat. There is no difference in color or field markings between male and female Gray Catbirds. I like to think they take turns gallivanting around the garden scavenging for insects, other invertebrates, and berries with which to feed their young.

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While the female does the brooding herself, the male does help feed the young. Catbirds often double or even triple brood, usually with 4 eggs in a brood. That’s a lot of babies! Baby catbirds leave the nest after 11 days and will continue to be fed by their parents until they are 24 days old.

This year our catbird friend and partner seem to have a nest in a low-growing holly close to our favorite lunch spot. I continue to leave grapes with hopes that some are shared with a mate or offspring. But much to our surprise, a crumbled chocolate cookie led to the discovery that catbirds, at least our catbirds, far prefer cookie crumbs to grapes (see picture for evidence)! And given a choice, they prefer chocolate cookie crumbs to crumbs from a chocolate chip cookie. This, of course, has totally endeared them to us and means no lunch is complete without a cookie or two because, of course, there must be enough to provide crumbs.

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By early November, the catbirds will once again head south to spend the winter along the Gulf Coast from Florida through Texas and down to Central America and the Caribbean. They will be missed!

Not only are catbirds fun to listen to, but they are a lovely Thrush-like songbird with beautiful slate gray plumage. If you look closely, you will also see their black cap, straight black bill, blackish tail, and bright cinnamon undertail coverts. No other eastern songbird is this color.

The Gray Catbird belongs to the genus “Dumetella”, which means “small thicket” and that’s exactly where you should look for them. So when you hear a rich rambling warble with distinctive meowing and sharp chips thrown in for effect, look closely and make your acquaintance with this lovely creature. They are probably in your garden! They forage on the ground and in low shrubs and nest between 5 and 10 feet above the ground, making your chances of spotting them highly likely. They don’t like flying across wide-open spaces and don’t like to sit in the tops of trees.

Thankfully, the Gray Catbird population is stable, enhancing your opportunities to have one join you for lunch.


About the Author

Nancy Gilbert is a board member and a conservation easement donor — as well as avid bird enthusiast and master gardener. In December 2001, Nancy and her husband Richard Wines, donated a conservation easement to the Trust on their property, Winds Way, in Jamesport. This easement protects 9.9 acres of agricultural land as well as 1.7 acres of scenic beachfront woodlands and wetlands on Great Peconic Bay. Also protected by the easement are the facades of the historic buildings located within the 3.2-acre development area, including a Greek-Revival residence, an historic barn, and a mid-19th century one-room schoolhouse. You can learn more about Winds Way and its history on their website: windswayfarm.com

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